JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel, which is said to have aided Kenya during the deadly attack on a Nairobi mall, has long viewed East Africa as a region of major strategic and economic importance.
"Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea are three countries which are crucial for Israel because they act as a buffer zone in a region which is seeing Islamic fundamentalism growing at a rapid pace," said Galia Sabar, head of African studies at Tel Aviv University.
As part of the Horn of Africa, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have access to the Red Sea, which is strategically and economically important to the Jewish state, she said.
"The Horn of Africa is important for Israel's economic interests, including trade with Asia through the Red Sea," agreed Dr Eli Karmon of the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya near Tel Aviv.
Kenya has meanwhile enjoyed a particularly close and diversified relationship with the Jewish state since the two countries established formal ties exactly 50 years ago, Sabar told AFP.
"Since Kenyan independence in 1963, Israel has had a very close relationship with this country in sectors as diverse as agriculture, education, security, military and intelligence," she said.
"What is unique (about this relationship) and makes it so intense, is that it extends into so many different areas than just one, as tends to be the case with Israel's relationship with other countries."
Figures provided by the Israel Export Institute show that trade between the two countries reached $139 million in 2012 and accounted for 8.0 percent of Israel's entire trade with Africa.
"Over the last 15 or so years, with the establishment of Al-Qaeda in east Africa, notably in Somalia, Kenya turned into a bastion for the fight against Islamist fundamentalism, not only for Israel but for the West," Sabar said.
The two countries' cooperation on security matters goes back decades.
"The peak of cooperation between Israel and Kenya was during Operation Entebbe in 1976," security expert Yossi Melman told AFP, referring to a hostage rescue operation mounted by Israeli commandos to free passengers aboard an Air France jet hijacked by Palestinian militants.
At the time, a Kenyan official managed to convince Nairobi to allow agents from Israel's Mossad spy service to collect information ahead of the rescue bid, and later paved the way for Israeli air force planes to refuel at Nairobi airport in the wake of the raid, he said.
Two decades later, cooperation deepened considerably after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania claimed by Al-Qaeda, which "set off a warning light for Israeli intelligence regarding the terror threat in Africa," wrote Barak Ravid in Monday's Haaretz newspaper.
In 2002 there was a direct attack on Israeli interests in Kenya in the form of an Al-Qaeda-linked bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa, and a subsequent attempt the same day to shoot down an Israeli airliner taking off from the port city.
The two attacks "turned the warning light into a real alarm bell," Ravid wrote.
Earlier this year, a Kenyan court jailed two Iranians for life after convicting them on charges of plotting bomb attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa. Israeli agents were reportedly involved in their interrogation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused arch-foe Tehran of planning to attack Israeli targets in Kenya.
On Sunday, a security source in Nairobi told AFP that Israeli forces were directly involved in Kenyan efforts to end the deadly siege on the Westgate Mall by Somali militants.
But Israel's foreign ministry has neither confirmed nor denied that its forces were involved, saying that Israeli interests did not appear to have been specifically targeted in the attack which is now in its fourth day and has so far left 65 people dead and around 200 wounded.
"These are only rumours," admitted Melman.
"It is highly unlikely that Israel would send combat troops to a foreign country for a rescue mission," he told AFP.
"On the other hand it is certain that Israelis who have expertise in handling this type of situation, like the Shin Bet (internal security service), the army and the police, have helped the Kenyan government to manage this crisis," he added.