Maryam Alkhawaja, the most well-known of the human rights activists in Bahrain, fighting for the democratic reform of the absolute monarchy led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, condemned in a BBC interview the normalization of relations between Bahrain and Israel announced by the Trump administration last week.
“The Bahraini people have always been very publicly in support of the Palestinian people. And we’re seeing this reaction again today. I think a lot of the outrage is because the people of Bahrain were not expecting the Bahraini regime [the monarchy] to go to the point of making this deal against the will of the Bahraini people,” she said.
“Nothing about this deal has anything to do [with] the well-being or the protection of the Bahraini people. The Bahraini people are not a free people, Bahrain is not a free country,” she stressed. “People don’t have the right to have opinions or to express those opinion. We’ve seen time and time again people prosecuted, tortured and imprisoned just for expressing their opinions … This is a decision made by the government and has nothing to do with the Bahraini people.”
Alkhawaja’s thoughts have enjoyed wide support on social media. On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of Bahrainis criticized and expressed their opposition to the agreement between Manama and Tel Aviv that follows the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE announced a month ago by the same Donald Trump, and which is set to be formalized on September 15 with a signing ceremony at the White House. On Twitter, the hashtags #Bahrainis_Against_Normalization and #Normalization_Is_Betrayal have been trending.
This is a very different climate from the one that had accompanied the agreement between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, when many in the Emirates had praised the decision taken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayaf and had condemned the Palestinians’ rejection of this normalization, often in aggressive tones.
Iran’s opposition to the agreement between Manana and Tel Aviv was expected: “The rulers of Bahrain will henceforth be complicit in the crimes of the Zionist regime [in Israel],” was Tehran’s official comment. The Palestinian National Authority reacted in similar terms, withdrawing its ambassador to Manama, and the Islamic Hamas movement spoke of another “stab in the back” by an Arab state.
But the negative reaction of a large part of the Bahraini population has been stronger than all expectations. This can also be explained in the context of the political and social conflict in Bahrain, where the Shiite opposition and civil society have been victims of repression and abuse for decades. This repression intensified in 2011 during the Bahraini Arab Spring, snuffed out with great bloodshed in Pearl Square. In the nine years since, top political leaders have been imprisoned, including the socialist Ebrahim Sharif and some of the leading human rights defenders, such as Nabeel Rajab, convicted for allegedly “subversive” tweets and posts on social media, who was only recently released from prison.
The movement for democracy in Bahrain has a long history, but has not produced tangible results. After 2011, the media, human rights groups and opposition parties were given some limited freedom to dissent. Then, in 2016, under the pretext of an alleged attempt by Iran to manipulate the popular protests going on in the country, the monarchy dispelled any remaining hope of change and closed down Wasat, the only independent newspaper. The regime cracked down on moderates and radicals alike, and death sentences against “terrorists” were carried out.
The repeated denunciations by Amnesty, HRW and the regional human rights centers have not produced results. King Hamad remains firmly in charge, also thanks to the alliance he maintains with the United States and the UK—whose warships and military bases he hosts—and ties with other Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Saturday, in response to the social campaign against normalization, Hanan Ashrawi, member of the PLO Executive Committee, thanked the people of Bahrain on behalf of the Palestinians. But the Palestinian leaders must admit their own mistakes. In recent years, they have been privileging the relationships with the wealthy kings and princes of the Gulf, to ensure generous funding for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) run by President Mahmoud Abbas, and have turned a blind eye to the struggles waged by the people of those kingdoms, starting with Bahrain.
The Palestinian political scientist Diana Buttu has called for a profound rethinking of the type of relations established over the years with the Arab states: “One should privilege relations with the peoples and civil societies,” she tells us, “and elections should be held for the revival of the PLO, so that the Palestinians, both within and outside [the Occupied Territories], can decide on the destiny of the PLO and the political strategies to be followed towards conquering freedom and putting an end to the Israeli military occupation.”
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