Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

An Encounter with a Sudanese Military Official

Many years ago, when I conducted my PhD research on Rwandan foreign policy, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit the Rwandan Peace Academy. This military education centre focused on training Rwandan and African officers for the difficult task of operating within peacekeeping mandates. The experience at the Rwandan Peace Academy, just south of the northern Rwandan city of Musanze, contained many insightful historical stories of the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994), Rwandan perception of peacekeeping and of Rwanda’s military. But there was one experience during my visit which relates to the recent news of Israel and Sudan establishing diplomatic relations.

To summarise recent events, Sudan and Israel have begun foreign diplomatic relations. While Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have already recently established ties with Israel, this news is significant for two primary historical reasons. First, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, Sudan sent military soldiers to fight against Israel in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and the Six-Day War in 1967. Sudan becomes the third Arab nation which fought against Israel to now normalise diplomatic relations. The second and perhaps most important is the historical precedence of the three ‘No’s against Israel.

The 1967 Arab League summit, hosted in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum, formulated the Khartoum Resolution, a regional norm of not recognising Israel’s existence, not to negotiate with any Israeli government, and no to peace with the country. This historical precedence was broken in 1979 with peace agreements between Egypt and Israel and in 1994 between Israel and Jordan. Now within a number of months, the international community witnessed the formal and public  relations between several Arab nations, including those that created and supported the Khartoum Resolution, and Israel. And significantly, it includes the nation which established decades of regional norms.

Over the past few weeks, there have been news articles which hinted of possible Sudanese peace, recognition and formal relations with Israel. On 23rd October, President Trump announced the Sudanese-Israeli agreement for peace, cooperation and recognition. It seemed to be a part in a larger agreement between the White House and the Sudanese government for Sudan to be removed from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism and to receive much needed foreign aid. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Iran have come out against the new peace, much of the international community welcomed it. Even within Sudan, there is public uproar towards the agreement.

But reading the news of the Sudanese-Israeli peace agreement, I am reminded of my time at the Rwanda Peace Academy. While waiting to meet with its commander, Colonel Jill Rutaremara, I met a Sudanese colonel who was at the time the Sudanese Military Attaché to Sudan’s embassy in Kigali, Rwanda. He was visiting the academy as well. What initially intrigued me of his presence was his engagement with many of the Rwandan lecturers at the academy who participated in Rwanda’s contribution to various peacekeeping missions in Sudan. In particular, Rwanda contributed military personal to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). I wondered if the Military Attaché official held any ill will towards his Rwandan military colleagues for their (foreign) intervention in Sudanese (domestic) conflicts.

While waiting in the waiting room at the Rwandan Peace Academy, I noticed how the Sudanese Colonel was fascinated with me. Within the medium size room with black leather chairs and couches, the man could not help but stare at me. His eyes were fixated to the top of my head. There sat on my head was my kippah, a Jewish cap to distinguish the separation of man from Gd, which I often wear when I am in Rwanda. He eventually broke the silence and asked if I was a ‘Jew’. I quietly nodded my head, not entirely knowing what would come about next.

He leaned back on his chair and smiled. He then looked towards the wall and asked if I was Israeli, which I replied ‘no’. I was after all an American researching on Rwanda for my PhD studies based in London, UK. He smiled and said how he wishes to travel to Israel and learn from the Israeli Defense Force. I was rather confused by his response. I expected hostility from him. However, I was completely wrong.

For the following twenty minutes, as we waited, he kept discussing how Sudan needed to end its hatred for Israel and the Jews at large. Specifically, it would be in the self-interest for Sudan, especially its military, to develop closer diplomatic, economic and security relations with Israel. Fundamentally for him, Sudanese state interests needed to triumph over social causes, i.e. the Palestinian cause, that he felt did not benefit Sudan. He even said how many within the Sudanese military expressed their desire to work alongside with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to better equip the nation’s military in terms of weapons and strategies.

We kept on discussing whether there would be any future relations between the two nations. While he was optimistic, however, I clearly remember him murmuring to himself, “not while General Bashir is President.” In 2019, President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown after nearly thirty years in power. Despite him being called in to meet with the Rwandan Peace Academy leadership first, he insisted I come along with him as an ‘educational opportunity’ for my doctoral research. Before we said ultimately goodbye, he asked me to one day show him around Israel.

That conversation has gone through my mind ever since. With the recent news of Sudan and Israel’s recent agreement, I remember the Colonel’s words more clearly than ever before. His desire for Sudan to have relations with Israel stemmed on neorealist principles of state interests over cross-national norms and beliefs. Fundamentally, the Palestinian solidarity campaign within the Arab world does not strategically benefit Sudanese security and economic interests. Thanks in part to President Trump, he was able to provide Sudan with key items such as the removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism and foreign aid that benefit state interest and growth. The drawbacks of recognition and relations of Israel seem not to be enough to prevent the Sudanese government achieving its state interests.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.
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