People protest against United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) and Bahrain’s deal to normalise ties with Israel, in Gaza. Photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Tuesday that a historic move to normalise relations with two Gulf Arab states could herald an “end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all”.
But the immediate fallout has been a flare-up in violence with Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Militants fired at least rockets from Gaza into Israel Tuesday night, one of which wounded two men in the city of Ashdod, at the same time as Netanyahu was signing US-brokered agreements establishing diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the White House lawn. Another barrage of rockets was fired from Gaza before dawn; meanwhile, Israeli warplanes bombed sites in Gaza it said belonged to the militant group Hamas.
“I’m not surprised that the Palestinian terrorists fired at Israel precisely during this historic ceremony,” Netanyahu said before leaving Washington.
“They want to turn back the peace. In that, they will not succeed…We will strike at all those who raise a hand to harm us, and we will reach out to all those who extend the hand of peace to us.”
The move to normalise relations with the UAE and Bahrain has prompted outrage within the Arab and wider Muslim world, and furious protests by Palestinians, who view it as a betrayal of their cause that has left them further isolated. In Gaza, protesters trampled on and burned placards bearing images of the leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas warned that the agreements would not deliver peace in the Middle East.
“Peace, security and stability will not be achieved in the region until the Israeli occupation ends,” he said.
Neil Quilliam, associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, told VICE News that the Palestinians felt a deep sense of betrayal over the agreement, the first such normalisation between Israel and an Arab state since an agreement with Jordan in 1994.
The 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative had called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before Arab states normalised their relations with Israel. But the UAE and Bahrain had broken with that stance, establishing a diplomatic relationship without any meaningful progress towards resolving the conflict — although Israel had given an undertaking to suspend its intended annexation of parts of the West Bank.
“The Arab states weren’t particularly good at utilising what leverage they had, but this means they have even less leverage than they had before,” said Quilliam. “The ability to put pressure on Israel to work towards a two-state solution had been compromised.”
He said the rocket fire from Gaza was likely an expression of anger over the deals.
“It’s those groups in Gaza expressing dissatisfaction that all of this is taking place above their heads,” he said. “They’re effectively raising their voices and saying: ‘We’re still here’.”
While the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf states was a significant development, he said, it was a reflection of covert relationships that have been deepening in recent years.
“It had become an increasingly open secret that they had relations,” he said. “They’re essentially based on technology-sharing, intelligence-sharing and security. Now all that will increase.”
Quilliam said he was sceptical of US President Donald Trump’s hype that more Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, would follow suit in recognising Israel. And while the agreements would normalise relations between Israel and the Gulf states on a governmental level, the sentiment was unlikely to be shared by the public in Bahrain or the UAE. The hashtags “Bahrainis against normalisation” and “Gulf against normalisation” have trended in the lead-up to Tuesday’s deal.