JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has identified eastern Africa as an important strategic interest and is stepping up ties with nations in the region in a joint effort to control the spread of Islamic extremists, officials said Thursday.
In effect, Israel would become a player siding with Christian-led African nations in conflicts with Muslim movements, a fault line that has sharpened around the continent in recent years. Israeli moves come as the United States as well has hiked up military support for African governments, in large part to combat al-Qaida-linked groups.
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hosted the leaders of Uganda and Kenya earlier this week, following a meeting at the United Nations in September with the president of the newly liberated South Sudan, the mainly Christian and animist nation that gained independence from Muslim Arab-led Sudan in July.
The outcome of the meetings — and the extent of Israel's moves to ally with the Africans — remains murky. Kenya's leader went so far as to say Israel promised to provide security assistance to his country to help protect its borders Israeli officials say such claims are premature, but say an alliance with Kenya and other eastern African countries is natural.
"We have joint interests and we believe that mutual cooperation can be beneficial to us all," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
Uganda and Kenya have been battling al-Shabab, a Somalia-based group that is linked to the al-Qaida terror network. At the same time, there are growing fears that Sudan and South Sudan could return to war because of lingering disputes.
Israel believes that al-Qaida elements are now active in the Gaza Strip and Egypt's Sinai Desert — territories that both border Israel's southern flank.
In Israel's eyes, eastern Africa poses a potential hinterland where al-Qaida and other Islamic militants could potentially forge ties with similarly minded groups just to the north in Egypt and Gaza. Israeli officials already believe that Sudan is a pathway for smugglers providing weapons to militants in Gaza and the Sinai and that al-Qaida-linked groups in Egypt were behind a deadly cross-border raid in August that killed eight Israelis.
Officials also recall a 2002 attack in which militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel on Kenya's coast near the city of Mombasa, killing 13 people. The militants also tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.
"Israel has a significant part in the war against terror," said Shaul Shay, an Africa expert at Israel's Interdisciplinary Center near Tel Aviv. "Israel has an interest to fight al-Qaida everywhere, including Africa."
He said any assistance that Israel can provide would be "blessed" by the African leaders.
The extent of that assistance remains unclear.
Upon returning to Kenya, Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Netanyahu promised to help build "a coalition against fundamentalism," bringing together the countries Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Tanzania. Kenya also said Israel's president, Shimon Peres, told him Israel was ready to make "everything available to Kenya" for internal security.
Netanyahu's office refused to comment on Odinga's claims, while Peres' office suggested the Kenyan leader had gone too far.
An official in the president's office said Peres had boasted that Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world regarding homeland security and would be happy to share its expertise with any country fighting "global terror." But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a sensitive diplomatic matter, said no specifics were discussed.
An Israeli diplomat who participated in the meetings with the African leaders said they had expressed "great concern" about the unrest rocking the Arab world, and that it could somehow lead to the rise of Islamic extremism in Africa.
He said no formal deals were signed, and the African leaders had not presented a formal "shopping list." Instead, he said the sides "expressed concern and desire to think together and create partnerships of concern."
"The concern is genuine," he added, saying there would likely be follow-up meetings between diplomats and security officials to discuss "in more practical terms" ways to cooperate. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Israel's top ally, the United States, is already playing a growing role in Africa's military battles, providing counterterrorism training and equipping militaries, particularly in Central Africa to "preclude terrorists from establishing sanctuaries," according to the U.S. Africa Command. In Somalia, the U.S. helps support 9,000 troops from Uganda and Burundi to fight militants in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. America has given Kenya $24 million in aid this year "to counter terrorists and participate in peacekeeping operations."
Israel already has military ties with several African countries, including Nigeria, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast.
Relations with Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan have not yet reached that stage, though Israel's Defense Ministry has given clearance for private Israeli security firms to operate in those nations, including some arms sales. Israeli defense officials say intelligence sharing is limited to a few close allies at this stage.
"The Ministry of Defense has excellent relations with a number of friendly nations in Africa, especially internal security and counterterrorism," an official said, refusing to elaborate. He was not allowed to be identified under ministry regulations.
Israel has a long history of involvement in Africa, sending experts in agriculture and development, as well as military advisers and mercenaries, over the years. Israelis were a common sight in a broad swath of Africa, from Ghana to Uganda, including some involved in the diamond trade around the continent.
Relations cooled following the 1973 Mideast war, when, under Arab pressure, many countries severed ties with the Jewish state. Israeli ties with apartheid era South Africa also harmed its standing in Africa. Israel was one of the last countries to denounce apartheid.
Israel's relations with African countries have largely been repaired. Two years ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman traveled to five African nations, the first such visit to the continent in 20 years.