Struggling to be heard over a flock of bleating sheep, Israel’s ambassador to Senegal invited a crowd of impoverished Muslims to help themselves to some 100 sacrificial animals that the embassy had corralled at a dusty community center.
That event, which was broadcast last October on national television and takes place every year to mark Tabaski, the local name of the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast, provides Israel with a powerful platform to burnish its image in a country that is 95 percent Muslim.
“It registers very strongly with locals that Israelis give them sheep for a Muslim holiday while most Arab embassies do nothing,” said Eli Ben-Tura, the Israeli ambassador.
The animals are just part of the millions that Israel has spent over the years in Senegal, a French-speaking Western African nation of 12 million where the average monthly salary is $158. In return, Senegal has supported Israel’s erection of a barrier to protect itself from Palestinian terrorism and, last December, signed over oil prospecting rights in its territorial waters to an Israeli-owned mining company.
Over the past decade, Israel’s trade has more than tripled with Senegal, a country about the size of South Dakota. Among its neighbors is Mali, where French troops have been fighting Islamic militants for months.
“Like Israel, Senegal is an island of stability in an unstable region,” Ben-Tura told JTA in an interview last week at the Israeli Embassy overlooking Independence Plaza in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city.
The importance Israel places on its partnership with Senegal was evident in Ben-Tura’s speech on April 30 at Israel’s 65th Independence Day celebration at the Grand Theatre National, a magnificent structure built with Chinese funding in 2011 near Dakar’s main port.
Speaking to an audience of 1,000, Ben-Tura listed Israel’s latest gifts to the country: training for hundreds of farmers; preparations to train thousands more by Israeli experts stationed in the country; and the establishment of a permanent depot for agricultural equipment and disease control.