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In Central Africa, Israelis fuel development

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Cameroonian soldiers march in the country's 50th anniversary parade, May 20, 2010. Israel provides weapons training to Cameroon as part of the two countries' expanding bilateral ties. (Larry Luxner)

Cameroonian soldiers march in the country’s 50th anniversary parade, May 20, 2010. Israel provides weapons training to Cameroon as part of the two countries’ expanding bilateral ties. (Larry Luxner)

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea (JTA) — On a barren, 60-acre tract of land overlooking the Gulf of Guinea, bulldozer operators turn the earth while sweaty construction workers take a lunch break in the shadow of an improvised Zim shipping container.

Inside an air-conditioned trailer nearby, Tel Aviv native Zvi Blum sits at his desk under a colorful poster showing how Malabo’s evolving Centro Medico La Paz will look about a year from now.

“This is going to be the best hospital in Africa. They’ve never seen anything like it before,” Blum says with obvious pride.

The campus he describes will boast a 155-bed hospital, doctors’ residences, a 50-room hotel for guests, a pharmacy, a heliport, landscaping and a beautiful entrance fountain. Total investment: $100 million.

“We’re importing all the materials from Israel, from concrete to ceramics,” says Blum, whose last job was helping build the new passenger terminal at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Now he is the project director of International Medical Services GE S.A. The government of Equatorial Guinea, he says, “is paying for everything.”

It’s one of several Israeli-led projects in this tiny nation — population 800,000 and roughly the size of Maryland — that is awash in petroleum dollars. The Equatorial Guinean government — ruled by a president who seized power in a 1979 coup and has been denounced by critics as a dictator who manipulates elections and stifles dissent — already has financed the construction of an Israeli-run hospital in Bata, the main city in the continental part of the country, which employs more than 100 Israeli doctors and nurses.

An unknown number of Israeli advisers also provides military training to Equatoguinean soldiers guarding their Spanish-speaking nation’s remote borders with French-speaking Cameroon and Gabon.

This is not the only country in Central Africa in which Israel’s involvement is growing. Aside from Israeli investments, there’s a political element, too, helped along in some cases by American Jews.

At a lavish 50th anniversary state dinner held May 19 in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, dozens of foreign dignitaries joined Prime Minister Philemon Yang in paying tribute to one of Africa’s long-ruling heads of state, Cameroon President Paul Biya (Although Cameroon formally has a multiparty system, Biya maintains a firm grip on power. He has changed the constitution to enable himself to continue running for president, and critics have charged that Cameroon’s elections have been neither free nor fair).

Among those in attendance at the dinnerwas Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress and president of the American Council for World Jewry. In between schmoozing with Yang and visiting Gabon President Ali Bongo, the visiting New Yorker told JTA why he was in Cameroon — a poor, tropical country of 20 million without any native Jews.

“Africa is important to us for a number of reasons,” Rosen said. “Currently, three members of the U.N. Security Council are from Africa: Gabon, Uganda and Nigeria. At the U.N., their votes are critical in such things as sanctions against Iran.”

On June 9, all three countries voted to support the sanctions; behind-the-scenes lobbying by Jewish groups preceded the vote.

Israel’s involvement in Central Africa also can help combat Iran’s growing influence here, Rosen said, noting the increasing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Cote d’Ivoire.

“It’s important for the American Jewish community to play a role in African affairs and try to get them to support our causes,” Rosen said. “Not only that, the Israelis have done substantial trade with Africa over the years. They can provide these countries with resources and technology in areas that are important to them, like agriculture and military training.”

Miki Arbel, Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon, said that back in the 1960s and early 1970s, his country had excellent relations with all of sub-Saharan Africa. But that was before the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when virtually all African states severed ties with Israel due to Arab pressure.

Cameroon was among the first African states to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1984. Other countries followed — Burkina Faso, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Central African Republic. Chad and Niger do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Last year, while serving as Israel’s ambassador to Mauritania, Arbel was expelled from the country after the Arab League, meeting in Qatar, decided to freeze all relationships with Israel following the Gaza war.

In Cameroon, Arbel said, Israel is helping primarily with irrigation methods and water management. Israeli experts teach courses on irrigation throughout the country, with a focus on the arid northwest province.

“They don’t know how to cultivate and what to cultivate,” Arbel said of the Cameroonians. “But if we teach them and share with them the knowledge we have acquired in Israel over the past 60 years, then they can generate more crops from their piece of land.”

Israel’s bilateral trade with Cameroon comes to just under $15 million, consisting mostly of imports of semi-processed wood and exports of heavy machinery and irrigation equipment. Some Israeli firms have invested in the booming telecom sector, while others have contracted out their expertise in security and weapons training.

As for Cameroon’s position on Israel, Arbel said, “The Cameroonians understand one thing: that the conflict in the Middle East is not only an Israeli problem.”

He explained, “The African Union is controlled by big countries — South Africa, Nigeria and Libya — and these are not necessarily the best friends of Israel. But politics is politics, and the politics of Cameroon is not to be against Israel.”

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