111119-1054-Amrams-Pillars-Negev-Desert-Israel.jpg

The Abraham Accords in Action:

A Personal Reflection on

My Journey from the Gulf to Israel

by Najat Al-Saied*

While I was documenting my journey to Israel (6–11 February 2022), Russian forces launched an attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022, considered to be the most dangerous military development in Europe since World War II. The whole world is watching and has denounced the invasion but there has been no action, not even from Western countries that encouraged the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to confront Moscow.

We have only heard their condemnation and the reported imposition of sanctions against Moscow, but in times of war people need more than words and sanctions that can be evaded; they need practical intervention to save them from the bombing and to stop the war. It has once again confirmed for me the importance of regional alliances, especially among countries that share the same political, economic and military goals, because they share the same destiny, and therefore a shared level of the requisite determination needed when facing down an enemy.

 

This has made me more confident than ever that my trip to Israel and my ambition to encourage peace among people is completely justified because when danger rears its ugly head, no one feels it more than those who burn in the fires. Warm peace, and the science diplomacy that we seek to engender, especially between the people of those countries that have signed the Abraham Accords and Israel, is the right path to follow.

 

When I first arrived in Israel, I experienced feelings of both astonishment and amazement. In a place I had never seen before and having only ever heard in the news that Israel was just a hotbed of fraught conflicts, I was surprised to find myself in a country like any other I had visited. The presence of my Israeli friend, Avital Schneller – whom I had met on several cultural exchanges brought about by the Abraham Accords – further helped me to get over any anxieties by explaining the country’s laws and procedures.

 

From the moment we arrived, we started taking pictures in order to record this historical journey and after we left the airport, we boarded a taxi bound for Jerusalem. My first port of call in Jerusalem, before I went to the hotel, was to Avital's house, where she introduced me to her father and mother. From that moment onwards, I felt how close our cultures were especially in terms of family ties, adherence to religion, and senses of humour.

 

The trip was organized by Sharaka[i] (“partnership” in English) – a non-profit, non-partisan organization founded by youth leaders from Israel, the UAE and Bahrain to transform the vision of peace among people into a reality – and my focus was on academia and media because of my role in the organization as a media and academic advisor. However, the journey was additionally fruitful, particularly in terms of the historical and social contexts. Even though a five-day trip to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is an insufficient period of time to delve deep enough, I documented everything I observed over those precious few days.

 

Historical and Religious Aspects

 

My impression before my visit to Jerusalem was that it was a small and religious city, but I was surprised by its large size, and that it is not only a religious city but also a modern one. For example, Mamilla Mall is a high-end shopping street and is the only open-air mall in West Jerusalem, which includes the most luxurious fashion and beauty stores, restaurants and cafes, and is located to the northwest of Jaffa Gate.

 

I saw the religious side of the city when I visited the Old City of Jerusalem with a wonderful tour guide, Shakked Be'ery, which was arranged by Sharaka, and I witnessed the magnificence of the three Abrahamic religions: the Temple Mount and the Western Wall or Wailing Wall for Judaism, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christianity, and the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims. During my visit to the Old City, I saw the perfect embodiment of these three religions living side by side – the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter – not the terrifying conflict between Muslims and Jews, as portrayed by the mainstream media. I also saw the impact of Ottoman rule as the city’s huge defensive walls and gates were built between 1535 and 1542 under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the tenth Ottoman Sultan.

 

I was blown away when I stood in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque because I was witnessing such ancient history, and the truly emotional moment was when I heard the call of the Maghrib prayer from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while I saw people of different faiths walking in the square. Unfortunately, I could not go inside the Mosque and pray because of security warnings in the wake of several incidents against Arabic-speaking visitors, especially where the visitor was known to be from an Arab Gulf country. I was reluctant to speak in Arabic and went immediately to the Christian

Quarter and then the Jewish one.

I certainly was not going to miss an opportunity to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an architectural masterpiece that has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its establishment in the fourth century as a traditional site for Christ's resurrection. There I saw Christians from all over the world, but what captivated me was meeting Coptic monks who spoke the Egyptian dialect in the Church. After that, I went to the Jewish Quarter to visit The Hurva (Ruin) Synagogue,  which, as the name suggests, was destroyed several times. It was founded in the early eighteenth century by the followers of Judah Hasid on the ruins of a synagogue, and it was destroyed in 1721 AD by the Ottoman authorities, due to the owners’ failure to pay debts to local Muslims.

 

After spending one day in Jerusalem, the rest of my trip was spent in Tel Aviv. The city boasts many historical monuments but we only visited some of them, such as The Setai Hotels Tel Aviv in Old Jaffa, which is now a luxurious hotel but once served as a prison in the Ottoman era in the late nineteenth century, and was called "Kishel", a Turkish word meaning prison. Although Tel Aviv does not have historical religious landmarks like Jerusalem, the Hassan Bek Mosque, which was named after the Ottoman governor of Jaffa, Hasan Bek, in 1916, caught my attention because it is located in the midst of all the main hotels and a real estate complex.

 

Social and Academic Aspects

 

After signing the Abraham Accords on 15 September 2020 with the UAE and Bahrain, and being a resident of the state of peace and coexistence in the UAE, I had the opportunity to meet many Israelis, whether at social and cultural events or at virtual meetings. Most of my encounters were with those working in the media and academia, as well as those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most of these meetings were coordinated by Sharaka. But my curiosity has always drawn me to learn more about Israelis of Arab origin because since ancient times, Arab Jews have been very successful in several fields, including medicine, trade and arts. The Arabs have lost a huge amount of human capital having been dragged into political events.

So, meeting with my virtual friends and those I met in Dubai was like a dream come true because it connects the beauty of the past with our present, and we aspire to live in a bright present with the help of enlightened intellectuals who seek to avoid people being held hostage to political events. My meetings with Israelis of Iraqi, Egyptian and Yemeni origin were completely free of politics, and this was the secret of their transparency.

 

One of the most successful visits on my trip was to the Open University in Israel, which is located in the city of Ra’anana in the heart of the southern Sharon Plain in the central region of Israel. I met Mr Daniel Rutenberg, a lecturer in mathematics, who briefed me on the latest technologies used at the University for distance learning, as well as informing me about the high percentage of Arab-Israeli students at the university. Mr Rutenberg introduced me to Professor Eran Fisher, Chair of the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at The Open University. We talked about the importance of cooperation in academia and research; between the “Sharaka Scholars Forum” partnership and the University in several areas – economic, geopolitical, media, technical, security, military and other fields.

What came as a surprise was that English is not the first language in Israeli universities and is mostly not spoken. The main languages are Hebrew and Arabic. Before I arrived in Israel, I expected to find a mini New York, but I was wrong. Israel is more a part of the Arab world; more Middle Eastern than Western. I also made new contacts with professors at the Hebrew University and Reichman University (IDC Herzliya). Visiting universities in Israel needs to be a separate trip especially for exploring what modern technologies are used as well as mechanisms for developing curricula.

 

The Media and Political Perspectives

 

My knowledge of the Israeli media started to develop prior to my visit to Israel. It began after the Abraham Accords, when I contacted the former editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom, Boaz Bismuth, and then I joined the newspaper as a writer. I have also written in The Jerusalem Post and The Jewish Press, and now I work as a political analyst on i24NEWS English, but despite this, things look quite different when you are actually there on the ground. My first media visit was to the Government Press Office in Jerusalem, where I recorded an episode to be broadcast on International Women's Day on 8 March, speaking about the role of Arab women in the media, especially the UAE. I also stressed the need for media partnerships between the Abraham Accords countries and Israel, especially in the English language, to confront the attacks and fallacies published by the Western media, so that a more accurate picture could be presented to Western viewers.

My second media visit was to the news channel i24NEWS, where I conducted interviews for i24NEWS French, English[ii] and Arabic[iii] with Dan Feferman, Director of Communications and Global Affairs in Sharaka. Here, I finally got to meet in person the members of staff that I had been dealing with virtually and over the phone. In the interviews we talked about Sharaka’s goals and its aspirations towards strengthening citizen diplomacy, which is a kind of cultural, social and commercial reconciliation between people, away from politics, as well as promoting science diplomacy through the "Sharaka Scholars Forum," which brings together people from science and academia. I also offered impressions from my trip to Israel. What struck me the most about the channel is the harmonious relationships among the staff, especially the Israeli Arabs and the Jewish Israelis; they work as a team and it is in the spirit of fun and good humour that they come together. I also noticed the thirst among Israeli Arabs to get to know the Arab Gulf, in contrast with the hostility I see among some Palestinians towards Arab Gulf citizens. One employee told me that they did not know much about the Gulf countries and would like to learn more.

The interview that I felt most comfortable with was with Dr. Mordechai Kedar, who has a deep understanding of the region. He is an Israeli researcher, fluent in Arabic, focusing on the region's politics and a retired university professor from Bar-Ilan University. The interview was an analytical discussion about the current situation in the region and the causes of instability and turmoil. I pointed out the romantic nostalgia promoted by ideologues, whether nationalist or Islamist, as the cause of turmoil and conflict in the region. I also talked about the existence of countries in the same region that enjoy stability and prosperity, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while other countries live in an inferno, such as Lebanon and Iraq. The region is divided into an axis of moderation, which is the pragmatic political axis, that is pro-statehood and is represented in particular by the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and an axis of resistance, which is the ideological and non-state axis represented by the Iranian regime and its affiliates from Arab countries and extremist groups and militias.

 

After my interview with Dr. Kedar, I met Major Ella, the Israeli Army’s Deputy Spokeswoman for Arab Media, the first Arab Muslim woman to be promoted to the rank of major in the Israel Defense Forces, and here we talked about analyzing some of the events not only from a political point of view, but also through a cultural lens. The first question I asked her was about the truth behind what happened in Sheikh Jarrah, as she mentioned that the Jews have deeds proving that the lands in Sheikh Jarrah were sold to them a long time ago by the Palestinians. The Palestinians, on the other hand, refuse to hand over their homes where they have lived for decades, especially because they have nowhere else to go. In terms of the law, the Jews have the legal right to take the land because they have legal proof of ownership, but the problem from a humanitarian point of view is that the Palestinians will be homeless. Here comes the cultural dispute. One side takes a legal perspective, the other a humanitarian one, and public opinion remains confused about the split.

Overall, people in the region need each other because, after all, we are all in one trench and our destiny is the same. This region is diverse in terms of race and religion, and Jerusalem is the embodiment of the three Abrahamic religions. Let us hope that we at least unite as people away from political conflict so that events do not drag us backwards into further destruction, so we can aspire to a better future. Extremist terrorist groups and ideological regimes, as well as certain politicians of powerful countries, have used the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to serve their expansionist and hegemonic projects, and fanned the flames. The time has come to stop holding people hostage to political events and leave politics to politicians to consolidate our relationship as fellow humans through citizen diplomacy and science diplomacy, and this is exactly what the "Sharaka" organization hopes to achieve.

8 March 2022

*Dr Najat Al-Saied is the Media Affairs and Academic Advisor of Sharaka and Adjunct Professor at AUE specialized in political media and communication. She can be reached at: najat@sharakango.com

References

[i] https://www.sharakango.com/

[ii] https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=3805127169712414&extid=WA-UNK-UNK-UNK-AN_GK0T-GK1C&ref=sharing

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY7JWJfx-Wc