President Ruto changes tune on Israel-Hamas conflict

President William Ruto

President William Ruto joins other heads of state during the first Saudi-African Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 11, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

President William Ruto on Saturday upended his public views on the Gaza conflict, adjusting to an audience of mainly pro-Palestine leaders gathered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Speaking at a meeting of African leaders with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Ruto said his government not only condemns terrorism but also abhors illegal occupation, the latter of which has formed the constant condemnation of Israel by Arab leaders.

"We believe that terrorism cannot be an answer to any conflict, neither can occupation.

"We believe that Palestine should be a free state and we stand for a two-state solution as a means of resolving the conflict."

Dr Ruto spoke as leaders gathered to discuss the future of Africa-Saudi relations. But it came against a backdrop of searing violence in which Israel has shelled the Palestinian territory of Gaza to the point of near collapse in retaliation for an October 7 attack by the militant group Hamas.

President William Ruto

President William Ruto (third right) joins other heads of state during the first Saudi-African Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 11, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

The speech, however, was notable for its variance. While Kenya has traditionally advocated for a two-state solution to end the perennial conflict between Israel and Palestine, Dr Ruto had expressed “solidarity” with Israel when the conflict began.

“Kenya joins the rest of the world in solidarity with the State of Israel and unequivocally condemns terrorism and attacks on innocent civilians in the country. The people of Kenya and their government hereby express their deepest sympathy and send condolences to the families of all victims. We also wish a speedy recovery to the injured,” Ruto said.

“Kenya strongly maintains that there exists no justification whatsoever for terrorism, which constitutes a serious threat to international peace and security. All acts of terrorism and violent extremism are abhorrent, criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of the perpetrator, or their motivations.”

Back then, President Ruto did admit the conflict was complex and delicate but only called on the parties to de-escalate to allow for a political solution. It contradicted the African Union which directly condemned Israel for causing the conflict through illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.

Later, Foreign Affairs PS Korir Sing’oei said the President had referred to a particular incident of violence, not changed Kenya’s traditional stand of calling for a two-state solution.

On Saturday, President Ruto spoke before a group of Arab leaders who also, later, gathered for a summit of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). These blocs had been vocal against Israeli occupation but considered Hamas as a freedom movement, rather than a terrorist group.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the violence in Gaza had become a “humanitarian catastrophe that testifies to the failure of the (UN) Security Council and the international community to put an end to the flagrant Israeli violations of international laws and norms and international humanitarian law.”

Among the leaders gathered for the Arab-OIC Summit included Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkish President Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who was making his first trip to Riyadh since they normalised relations this year, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Azmi Mikati, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

At least 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza and more than one million people displaced since Israel began retaliation attacks on October 7.