When Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian families in an attempt to evict them from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem earlier this month, this was the culmination of weeks of tension. No strong reaction to the Palestinian families’ sit-in was noticed from Arab capitals. As Israeli soldiers started attacking Palestinians praying in Al-Aqsa mosque in the last few days of the Holy month of Ramadan, however, calls for calm started to trickle down.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates quickly condemned Israel’s plans to evict Palestinians from their homes. The clichéd statements mirrored others from almost every Arab capital. Countries who recently started normalising relations with Israel found themselves in an awkward position, since at the beginning they had expected that the Jerusalem protests would die away. They didn’t, and protests erupted in cities inside Israel, from Lod to Al- Ramlah, where Palestinian citizens protested government discrimination, then rockets were launched from Gaza targeting Israeli cities, including the capital Tel Aviv.
Fast developing war in occupied Palestine posed the first real test to the wave of normalisation deals signed by Gulf and Arab countries last year, just before former US president Donald Trump left office. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan signed agreements with the Jewish state for what is called the “Abraham Accords”. The agreements were brokered by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
But as Trump and Kushner are now out of the picture, and the new US administration under President Joe Biden is not in love with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the circumstances are different. Nonetheless, Biden’s White House supports the deals.
With Israeli air raids demolishing buildings in Gaza and killing dozens of Palestinians, many of them women and children, however, the “Abrahamist” countries stepped up rhetorical condemnation. Social media posts on some accounts from the Gulf continued to criticise Hamas while others just showed sympathy with the Palestinians.
Foreign Affairs adviser to Emirati President and veteran diplomat Anwar Gargash tweeted: “The Emirates stands with Palestinian rights, with the end of the Israeli occupation, with the two-state solution and with an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a historic and principled position that does not budge. How sad it is to exploit Palestinian peoples’ suffering for improper self-interests, how saddening such insults in the context of the endless Arab and regional civil war of words.”
He was referring to a campaign of disinformation accusing the UAE of siding with Israel against Palestinians. The Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliates never miss any opportunity to attack the UAE for its firm stance against political Islam. A fabricated story on the internet claimed an Emirati female pilot was taking part in bombing Gaza, which forced the named Emirati women to deny the claim in a passionately sympathetic voice message showing solidarity with Palestinians being attacked by Israel.
A small Israeli financial newspaper posted a story on its website claiming that the UAE told Hamas that “Emirati investments in the Gaza Strip comes with the necessary conditions of calm.” The story was widely shared on social media by those accounts known for attacking the UAE. Al-Ahram Weekly tried to verify the story but couldn’t prove it to be true.
Summing up the mood of the Gulf states that signed peace agreements with Israel, BBC security analyst Frank Gardner wrote, “most Arab governments in the Gulf have little love for Hamas, a violent militant group backed by Iran that has so far fired well over 1000 rockets and missiles indiscriminately at Israeli towns. But the sympathies of those countries’Arab populations lie firmly with the Palestinians. If there was some reluctance amongst them to accept the newfound friendship with Israel after so many decades of antipathy then recent events will have only deepened their skepticism.”
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu feels the coldness from the Gulf capitals he has been trying to visit since March. As Vali Nasr of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University tweeted, “Israel’s entire strategy with the Abraham Accords was based on the argument that the Palestinian issue was no longer relevant. Now thanks to a series of Israeli mistakes it is back in force.”
Yet nobody expects the train of normalisation to stop forever, and the current situation could be just a “speed bump” as one European analyst put it. “New entrants to the ‘peace camp’ might just slow a bit, come closer to the formal but cold peace Egypt and Jordan had with Israel for decades”, a UK academic who has worked in the Gulf told the Weekly. His view is echoed by Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist at the Emirates University in Abu Dhabi. He told some Western media outlets that there is not enough popular criticism to make the government change its stance on Israel, which has opened the door to tourism and commercial opportunities. He told the American radio station NPR: “This decision is a long-term decision and strategic thinking. And this escalation, and as awkward as it feels for the UAE and the other Abrahamic border countries, I don’t think is going to have a profound impact.”
Now, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fully involved in Egypt-led diplomatic efforts to reach a truce and stop Israeli attacks on Gaza and its plans to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah. The ultimate goal of such efforts is to restart genuine peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians based on two-state solution.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly