Trump inflames Western Sahara conflict by validating Morocco’s occupation
A Sahrawi boy walks in the Smara refugee camp near Tindouf, south-western Algeria, March 4, 2016. The boy and his family are refugees from the ongoing Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. | Toufik Doudou / AP

Last week’s announcement that Morocco and Israel will establish diplomatic relations has reignited global attention on the freedom struggle of the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.

The Polisario Front, the national liberation movement of the Sahrawi, has been fighting for independence since 1975 when Western Sahara was invaded and occupied by Morocco. The organization’s name is based on the Spanish acronym for Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, two of the regions that comprise Western Sahara.

In a deal orchestrated by the Trump administration, the United States will recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Morocco’s embrace of Israel. The pact reportedly also includes the sale of American weapons and drones to Morocco as well as $3 billion in commercial investments in the North African kingdom.

As usual, Trump disclosed the agreement in a tweet punctuated with random capitalization and exaggerated adjectives. And, once again, Trump’s deal positions the United States as a rogue nation that undermines international consensus and disregards human rights.

The United Nations recognizes Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory” and the Polisario Front as the genuine representative of its people. A 1979 UN resolution affirmed the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination and independence. Today, dozens of nations around the world acknowledge the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, established by the Polisario Front in 1976, as the legitimate government of Western Sahara, and since 1984, it has been a member of the African Union (then known as the Organization of African Unity).

Oubi Bouchraya Bachi, spokesperson for the Polisario Front, condemned the Moroccan-Israeli agreement, declaring to the BBC Focus of Africa program: “Sovereignty over Western Sahara is a decision that should be taken exclusively by the Sahrawi people.”

Formerly colonized by Spain, Western Sahara’s annexation by Morocco began in 1975, as the Sahrawi proclaimed independence. A 16-year war between the Polisario Front and Morocco ended in 1991 with a ceasefire agreement that included plans for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara.

To this day, the referendum has not been held, despite numerous UN-mediated negotiations, partly due to disagreements over who is eligible to vote. Since the 1970s, Morocco has encouraged its citizens to move to Western Sahara and argues these settlers should be eligible to participate in the vote. The Polisario Front rightly insists a referendum on independence should be decided by the Sahrawis only.

In 2007, the Moroccan government offered Western Sahara a limited degree of autonomy under Moroccan rule, another desperate effort to deny self-determination to the Sahrawis which was rejected by the Polisario Front. Morocco’s ploy was reminiscent of France’s proposal to West Africans in the late 1950s to accept semi-autonomy within a French-dominated union rather than immediate and complete independence.

Today, a nearly 1,700 mile-long fortified sand wall separates Western Sahara into a Moroccan-controlled west, which includes the entire 500-mile-long Atlantic coast, and a Polisario Front-ruled east, bordering Algeria and Mauritania.

Last month, Morocco violated the 30-year ceasefire by sending troops into a demilitarized, UN-monitored buffer zone along Western Sahara’s southern border with Mauritania. Morocco claims Polisario Front activists were blocking a key highway that links the occupied territory with the rest of the African continent. Faced with this military incursion and decades of obstructing the referendum, the Polisario Front announced the resumption of armed struggle.

According to the Financial Times, the Polisario Front’s representative at the United Nations, Sidi Omar, explained: “We did not want this war but Morocco has been emboldened by the inaction of the international community.” In the last few weeks, skirmishes between Polisario Front soldiers and Moroccan troops have been reported. Human rights groups have also documented arrests of peaceful, pro-independence protesters in Western Sahara by Moroccan occupation authorities.

The Trump administration’s reckless decision to recognize Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara threatens to further destabilize a region that has been in turmoil since the NATO bombardment of Libya in 2011. Following the murder of Muammar Gaddafi in October of that year, Libya has been devastated by a brutal war, and much of the Sahelian zone of West Africa, particularly the nations of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, has been terrorized by various Islamist groups.

Trump’s deal also risks antagonizing Algeria, one of Africa’s major political and military powers and a key partner in the multinational alliance battling those terror groups in West Africa. In response to the Moroccan-Israeli agreement, Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad stated: “There are foreign maneuvers which aim to destabilize Algeria.”

Algeria has long been a steadfast supporter of the Sahrawi struggle for independence and the foremost backer of the Polisario Front. About 180,000 Sahrawis live in refugee camps in the desert along the southwestern Algerian border with Western Sahara where the government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is based. Like Palestinian refugees in the nations surrounding Israel, the Sahrawis cling to the hope for a return to their homeland.

Western Sahara is about the size of the United Kingdom, and its population is estimated at 600,000. The two-thirds controlled by Morocco includes the capital of Laayoune, where about a third of the population of Western Sahara resides. As an occupying power, Morocco exploits the wealth of Western Sahara, notably its significant reserves of phosphates as well as the rich fisheries off its Atlantic coast. In recent years, underwater oil and gas fields have been discovered along various portions of the West African coastline, and exploration has been conducted offshore Western Sahara, as well.

Just like Israel, which builds Jewish settlements in areas of the West Bank that are designated as part of a future independent Palestine state, the Moroccan government continues to encourage Moroccans to settle in Western Sahara. The Moroccan and Israeli settlement schemes are deemed illegal by most of the international community. In both cases, the objectives are clear: to alter the demographic balance in favor of the occupiers and to prevent the implementation of agreements leading to independence. By recognizing Israel’s designation of Jerusalem as its capital in December 2017 and Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara last week, the Trump administration condones the forced seizure and continued occupation of disputed territory in violation of international law.

Morocco is the latest majority-Arab nation in recent months to break tradition by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for financial and military inducements from the Trump administration. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were the first this summer but the deal brokered with Sudan in October has been opposed by the vast majority of Sudanese who resolutely support the Palestinian struggle, as well as some members of the United States Congress who disagree with terms they consider overly favorable to Sudan.

Some observers have noted the establishment of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel merely makes official links that have long existed as an open secret, as they cooperate in military and intelligence matters. The two nations also maintained liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv until 2000, when they were closed by the Moroccan government at the start of the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada.

A soldier holds the Polisario Front flag as a United Nations helicopter flies over the Smara refugees camp near Tindouf, south-western Algeria, on March 5, 2016. The United Nations recognizes Polisario as the sovereign power in Western Sahara, but Morocco continues to occupy major parts of the territory. By hammering out a deal for Morocco and Israel to establish diplomatic relations, the Trump administration is putting its seal of approval on yet another illegal occupation. | Toufik Doudou / AP

Moreover, Israeli tourists are already permitted to travel to Morocco, where they are granted a visa upon arrival from third countries. About 50,000 Israelis visit Morocco annually, drawn to the nation’s Jewish history and culture. The 3,000 Jews who live in Morocco today make it the largest Jewish community in North Africa. The agreement brokered by the Trump administration will facilitate direct flights from Israel to Morocco.

Nevertheless, opposition to ties with Israel and solidarity with Palestine is nearly universal in Morocco. Though they are united in supporting their nation’s occupation of Western Sahara, several parties within Morocco’s ruling coalition government as well as in its opposition have denounced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The Moroccan ruler, King Mohammed VI, claimed in a statement that deals with Israel “do not in any manner affect Morocco’s ongoing and sustained commitment to the just Palestinian cause.”

Although the Trump administration leaves Joe Biden with yet another diplomatic problem by recognizing Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara, the Sahrawis remain optimistic about relations with the president-elect. Oubi Bouchraya Bachi, the Polisario Front spokesperson, told the BBC: “We are very hopeful the new administration will take a different step.”

International law and world opinion remain firmly on the side of the Sahrawis, but Trump has offered their Moroccan occupiers a parting gift that may inflame a longstanding conflict in a volatile part of the world.


Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.