Israel, Rwanda share bond of 'pain of genocide'

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame at the airport in Kigali. (Cyril Ndegeya, AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame at the airport in Kigali. (Cyril Ndegeya, AFP)

Kigali - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Rwanda on Wednesday for a symbolic stop on his "historic" African tour, boosting ties between two countries with a history marked by genocide.

Welcomed on arrival by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Netanyahu visited the Kigali Memorial Centre where more than 250 000 of the at least 800 000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried in mass graves.

"My people know the pain of genocide as well, and this is the unique bond that neither one of our people would prefer to have," Netanyahu said at a press conference after visiting the memorial, alongside Kagame.

"Yet we both persevere despite the pain and despite the horror. We survived, we never lost hope - and you never lost hope."

Netanyahu said it had also provided the nations with a bitter lesson.

"In difficult times, we must be able to defend ourselves by ourselves," he said.

Kagame spoke of how the history of genocide had also influenced the two small nations to rely on their citizens.

"We have been formed and shaped to see, to do things in a certain way - but based mainly on the major resource we have," Kagame said. "And that is our people, the other resources come after."

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.

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

Four-nation Africa tour

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

"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 neighbourhood; 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."

On the eve of Netanyahu's tour Israel announced a relatively modest $13m aid package to strengthen economic ties and co-operation with African countries.

Israel's business with Africa constitutes only 2% of its foreign trade, leaving plenty of room for growth while demand for its defence 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 occupation of the West Bank 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.

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