Netanyahu visits Rwanda genocide memorial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Rwanda on Wednesday, a highly symbolic part of an “historic” African tour, boosting ties between two countries with a history marked by genocide.

Netanyahu, welcomed at the airport by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, later visited the Kigali Memorial Center, where more than 250,000 victims of the at least 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried in mass graves.

“The Rwandan government felt a real affinity with Israel for obvious historic reasons,” said Phil Clark, a Rwanda specialist at London’s SOAS University.

“Israel was seen as a small country in a very hostile neighborhood; a country with very few resources but which had recovered from its genocide very quickly and very impressively,” Clark said. “So Israel was an obvious place for Rwanda to look to for inspiration.”

From a pragmatic point of view, Israel is seen by Rwanda as an alternative partner amid increasingly strained relations with traditional allies such as the United States or Britain.

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In 2014, when Rwanda sat on the UN Security Council, Kigali abstained from a resolution — ultimately rejected — advocating the end of Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories.

That same year, Israel’s Defense Ministry denied a request to detail the country’s weapons exports to Rwanda between 1990 and 1995, amid claims that Israel had breached an international arms embargo imposed on the African nation by the UN Security Council during that time.

The request, made by attorney Eitay Mack and Prof. Yair Auron, charged that “there is no doubt that the State of Israel and the defense and foreign ministries knew very well what was going on in Rwanda in real time, just as the entire world knew.”

Israel’s Supreme Court in April upheld the Defense Ministry’s decision, ruling that public interest in the information was outweighed by considerations of “harm to state security and international relations.”

Netanyahu’s visit to Rwanda is part of a four-nation Africa trade and security tour aimed at boosting ties.

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On the eve of Netanyahu’s tour Israel announced a relatively modest $13 million (12 million euro) aid package to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with African countries.

Israel’s business with Africa constitutes only two percent of its foreign trade, leaving plenty of room for growth while demand for its defense expertise and products is rising.

It also sees African countries as potential allies, particularly at the United Nations and other international bodies, where it is regularly condemned over its policies in Judea and Samaria and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On Monday, Netanyahu visited Uganda to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Israeli raid on Entebbe airport in which his brother Yonatan was killed rescuing hostages held by German and Palestinian hijackers.

On Tuesday he visited Kenya, and will end his tour on Thursday in Ethiopia.