By Jessica Buxbaum / MintPressNews
On December 22, 2020, Israel and Morocco officially normalized relations after former President Donald Trump’s administration declared occupied Western Sahara as Moroccan. In the years following, Israeli companies have boosted their business involvement in Western Sahara, suggesting the pair’s cooperation is fueling each other’s land theft.
In 1975, Morocco annexed part of Western Sahara – a region indigenous to the Sahrawi people – and its entirety in 1979. Few have accepted these actions: today, 82 countries recognize Western Sahara’s independence, while only the United States recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the land.
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“The Worst of the Worst”
While Israel hasn’t officially recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco, several Israeli companies are already working with Morocco in the occupied territory. These include NewMed Energy, Ratio Petroleum, Selina Group, Halman-Aldubi Technologies, and an unnamed company launching an aquaculture project in Western Sahara. MintPress News contacted the known firms for comment on why they are doing business in occupied territory, but did not receive a response.
According to watchdog group, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), the only companies pursuing oil and gas exploration in Western Sahara are Israeli — NewMed Energy and Ratio Petroleum.
“Those are resources that will be depleted and disappear under occupation before the conflict has been resolved, and that is very worrisome for the Sahrawi people,” Erik Hagen, WSRW board member, told MintPress News. “So the stuff the Israeli companies are doing now is kind of the worst of the worst.”
Investing in Another Occupation
Similar to the Israeli settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel is now boosting its economic opportunities in Western Sahara.
In September 2021, the Moroccan National Office of Hydrocarbons and Mines (ONHYM) signed an agreement with Ratio Gibraltar, a subsidiary of the Israeli oil company Ratio Petroleum, to search for oil and gas off the coast of Dakhla, a city in Western Sahara. The budding business partnership grew from there.
In December last year, NewMed Energy entered into a business deal with ONHYM and Gibraltar-based Adarco Energy for offshore gas and oil exploration in Western Sahara’s Boujdour Atlantique block. NewMed Energy is a subsidiary of Israeli firm Delek Group. According to WSRW, Delek Group is backed by a number of European and American investors.
Delek Group owner, Yitzhak Tshuva, is the company’s largest shareholder, followed by the Norwegian Government Pension Fund. Deutsche Bank is the company’s 10th biggest owner. Six U.S. financial companies hold shares: Dimensional Holdings, Vanguard Group, BlackRock, Grantham Mayo van Otterloo & Co, Charles Schwab Corporation, and Empirical Finance.
WSRW contacted NewMed Energy in December regarding its offshore drilling license in Western Sahara and received the following response from NewMed Energy’s VP of Regulatory and Public Affairs, Nadav Perry:
I would like to clarify that all our actions in the past and in the present are done in accordance with and subject to international law and Israeli law and the laws in force. In addition, it should be noted in this context that we act in accordance with the stated policy of the Israeli government and we intend to continue doing so.
WSRW responded to NewMed Energy requesting clarification on which country’s laws it is following but did not receive an answer.
This spring, more Israeli businesses began cropping up in Western Sahara.
Israel’s Minister of Innovation, Science, and Technology, Ofir Akunis, announced in March that an unknown Israeli company will launch an aquaculture project in the occupied territory.
“This, and other areas of cooperation have been made possible by the Abraham accords,” Akunis said of the deal during the 2023 UN Water Conference.
MintPress News reached out to the Israeli ministry on which company is responsible for the aquaculture project but did not receive a response.
In April, an Israeli hospitality company, Selina Group, opened a new hotel in the Western Sahara city of Dakhla. Also in April, a consortium of Israeli startups, led by Halman-Aldubi Technologies, announced it would collaborate with Morocco’s Mohammed VI Polytechnic University to develop sustainable food solutions in Western Sahara. These startups include Seakura, Shachar Group, FreezeM, and Celitron.
Obtaining foreign investments in Western Sahara is part of Morocco’s strategy to establish facts on the ground, International Crisis Group, an organization centered on preventing war and mitigating conflict, North Africa director Riccardo Fabiani, said.
“By attracting foreign investments in Western Sahara, you are effectively creating international recognition and acceptance for Moroccan control of Western Sahara,” Fabiani told MintPress News.
With Israel increasing its business operations in Western Sahara, “you’re signaling to other foreign companies that it’s fine to invest in Western Sahara. It’s business as usual,” Fabiani said.
Before normalization, international companies would steer away from Western Sahara in fear of legal repercussions. But now, with more outside business involvement in the region, Fabiani noted, Western Sahara’s label is changing on the global stage.
“The stances and positions that many Western countries and companies are taking increasingly toward Western Sahara is the idea that this is not really an occupied territory; it’s more like a disputed area under control by the Moroccans,” he said.
A Partnership That’s Now Public
While Morocco and Israel normalized relations less than three years ago, the pair’s collaboration has spanned decades, albeit in secret.
The Moroccan Air Force purchased Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron drones in 2014 but did not receive the weapons until 2020. The arms are reportedly being used against the Polisario Front, the group fighting for Western Sahara’s independence.
“By doing this, the Israelis are effectively helping the Moroccans fight back the Polisario, and you could argue that it’s a way of repressing the pro-independence movement,” Fabiani said.
In 2018, the website MenaDefense.net uploaded a video of Moroccan police officers donning Israeli-made Tavor (X95) firearms during a parade. Morocco denied it received the weapons from Israel, saying they were acquired through a European firm. Several reports claimed the firearms were manufactured under a Ukrainian license; however, Ukraine denied this. That particular version of Tavor is not produced in Ukraine.
According to Amnesty International, Moroccan authorities used the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to unlawfully target activists, journalists, and human rights defenders in Western Sahara between 2017-2020.
In 2021, Morocco bought kamikaze drones from IAI, and then purchased IAI’s Barak MX antiaircraft and missile interceptor system in 2022. Israeli company BlueBird Aero System sold drones to Morocco in 2021, reportedly to be used for surveillance and intelligence collection in Western Sahara.
Under normalization, Morocco and Israel’s military alliance is no longer just a secret. It’s also intensifying.
“Before the normalization happened, the Israelis would collaborate with the Moroccans, but also wouldn’t feel comfortable going beyond this covert intelligence or military or ad hoc cooperation,” Fabiani said. “But with normalization, this has now reached a whole new level that is unprecedented.”
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.