Massacres, Rape, Siege: Why Israel Must Stop Its UAE Ally Aiding Ethiopia’s Atrocities

The UAE is running a huge airlift arming an Ethiopian regime committing mass atrocities in Tigray. That inhumane adventurism is a strategic problem for Israel, too

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi earlier this week.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi earlier this week. Credit: Haim Zach/AP
Alex de Waal
Alex de Waal

The Abraham Accords gave Israel new leverage across the Arab world. Israel has new allies, notably the United Arab Emirates. It’s now vital to examine what these allies might be doing — especially when they contradict the founding values of the State of Israel.

Genocide scholars are sounding the alarm over Ethiopia, where the UAE is arming the government. Emirati-supplied weapons are encouraging Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to go all out for a military solution, which risks mass ethnically-targeted violence. 

Israel should stop its new ally before a blunder becomes a crime.

The war in Ethiopia broke out last year, pitting the Ethiopian government and its allies—Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara regional state—against the Tigray region. All sides share responsibility for the war. Once it began, the Ethiopian government chose to fight with unspeakable brutality against Tigrayan civilians.

I receive daily calls from Tigrayans. My instinctive greeting, by now, is to offer condolences. Every single caller has lost a family member, often in one of the 260 documented massacres. I don’t ask about the daughters, sisters and mothers who have been raped. I hear about deaths from disease, of people who cannot get medicine because the hospitals were ransacked. I hear about children and their mothers perishing from hunger, because food was looted and plow oxen slaughtered.

Mother Roman Kidanemariam, 35, holds her malnourished daughter Merkab Ataklti, 22 months old, in the treatment tent of a clinic in the Tigray region of northern EthiopiaCredit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

This suffering is unseen. Journalists are forbidden from travelling to Tigray. The few aid workers let in work under a rigidly enforced code of silence.

Faced with imminent annihilation, Tigrayans rallied and fought back. Last June, they defeated the Ethiopian army and reoccupied their region. The government imposed a starvation siege: only about ten percent of the needed emergency aid has been allowed to get through. 

Today the Tigrayan people are facing an even greater threat. Abiy Ahmed has rallied his supporters around a campaign of blatant ethnic hostility. They portray the Tigrayans as a "cancer," "weeds," "daylight hyenas" and "rats." One of Abiy’s leading supporters was videotaped saying that they should be destroyed with the "utmost cruelty." 

Local militia and vigilantes are mobilized to the front line. They also instructed to patrol their own neighborhoods, far from the front line, to identify "enemies"—in practice, any Tigrayan. At least 40,000 Tigrayan civilians are believed to be held in internment camps and police stations in and around the Ethiopian capital. 

Tigrayans stand in line to receive donated food at a reception center for the internally displaced. Starvation is now sweeping Tigray, with basic medicines are running out under a government blockadeCredit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Anyone who speaks of peace is hounded. A singer, Tariku Gankisi, was asked to perform at a rally, and he deviated from the script, telling the crowd, "This is no time for singing, there is nothing to sing about." He called for peace. His microphone was shut off and the official media rounded on him, trying to force him to grovel and apologize.  

Singer Tariku Gankisi: “This is no time for singing, there's nothing to sing about"

Prominent elders of the peacemaking community, academics and businesspeople have also been targeted for online vilificationand real life intimidation for standing for peace or reaching out for dialogue with the opposition.

Among Tigrayans, I hear the sentiment that Ethiopia no longer wants them, and in turn they no longer want to be part of Ethiopia.

International efforts to negotiate a political solution are getting no traction. Efforts by the African Union, Kenya and the United States have been rebuffed. The Tigrayans say that they cannot trust Abiy. For his part, Abiy promises he will crush Tigray.

Abiy is emboldened by the weapons he has obtained on a global arms-buying spree. His supplies include the usual suspects—China, Russia, Ukraine and eastern European countries that manufacture small arms—and also Turkey and Iran. His most significant supplier has been the UAE, which is running a massive airlift of lethal equipment, including drones.

The UAE is a newcomer to the Horn of Africa. It sees opportunities for investment in agriculture and ports, and wants to make Ethiopia part of its security perimeter in the western Indian Ocean. Abu Dhabi was the sponsor of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, which won Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Newspapers and magazines, many glorifying Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy, at a newsstand in the capital Addis Ababa. Journalists are banned from Tigray and communications largely cut offCredit: AP Photo/Samuel Habtab

The Nobel committee didn’t give Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki a share in the award, because he is a totalitarian despot who runs his country like a personal fiefdom. Isaias didn’t mind. He got what he wanted, which was a security pact against Tigray — whose leaders had run Ethiopia for the previous quarter century and had fought a war against him.

It seems that when Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed hosted Isaias and Abiy, he promised them ongoing financial and military support. He is certainly fulfilling that promise to Abiy, even though in doing so he is defying the U.S. policy of trying to de-escalate the Ethiopian war in favor of a negotiated peace. 

The UAE belatedly reconsidered its support for proxies and its air campaigns in the wars in Libya and Yemen, but not before irreparable damage had been done to those countries. It should not have to re-learn this lesson at the expense of Ethiopia. With 110 million people, characterized by significant ethnic and religious diversity, the collapse of the country would be a calamity of surpassing size.

Pro-Ethiopian government protesters from Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community call to end the internal conflict, in front of U.S Embassy offices in Jerusalem last month Credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Israel should be worried. It has ties to Ethiopia dating back to the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. It has a deep connection to the country’s historic Jewish community, the Beta Israel. It has a security interest in a country strategically positioned at the southern end of the Red Sea arena, neighboring Muslim-majority countries.

Over the years Israel has cut deals to secure its strategic interests, and to get Ethiopia to allow its Jews to emigrate. Thirty years ago, during the last months of the communist military regime, Israel reportedly supplied munitions to the Ethiopian air force in return for expediting Operation Solomon which airlifted out 39,000 Beta Israel. Recently, as the Red Sea arena has become a theater of strategic rivalries and turmoil, Israel has kept a close eye on possible threats in the region, including militant groups. 

And with the Abraham Accords, Israel is becoming a partner to bin Zayed’s adventurism. In Washington DC and European capitals, Israeli and Emirati diplomats work hand in glove. The allies are building a new security architecture for the region — which is also giving the Emiratis a free pass when they go rogue. 

Ethiopian military parade with national flags attached to their rifles at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian army in downtown Addis Ababa last monthCredit: AP Photo/File

Emirati arms may save Abiy Ahmed’s government, but, as we have seen from Libya and Yemen, saving a government may come at the cost of losing a functioning state. That could destabilize the Horn of Africa for an entire generation. 

Worse still, knowingly or not, the UAE is abetting an Ethiopian regime committing mass atrocities that are escalating by the day. The warning sirens of genocide are blaring, loudly. 

Israel took a moral stand against genocide in Rwanda and Darfur. It must act now when Tigrayans face that hideous prospect. It should tell its new-found ally in Abu Dhabi to stop, now, in the name of humanity.

Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation and Research Professor at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is an expert on the Horn of Africa and on human rights, humanitarian issues and famine. His books include "Mass Starvation: The history and future of famine" (Polity 2018) and "New Pandemics, Old Politics: 200 years of the war on disease and its alternatives" (Polity 2021). Twitter: @WorldPeaceFdtn

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