Al-Jazzera / December 22, 2020
Emiratis are now allowed to visit Israel with ease, but we still have no freedom of movement in our own homeland.
This past year was full of adversity and hopelessness for many around the world. But for we Palestinians, it was even harsher – we were forced to face a deadly pandemic in an apartheid state, amid a collapsing economy, and a general feeling of hopelessness and abandonment.
In the second half of the year, a series of Arab states added to our collective misery by announcing their decision to normalise their relations with Israel. By effectively abandoning their supposed commitment to supporting Palestinian self-determination for money, weapons and a few short-term political gains, they sent us a clear message that our suffering and struggle for the most basic human rights no longer matter to them.
While every normalisation deal Israel clenched with an Arab state undoubtedly hurt us, none of them was as painful for us as the one signed by the United Arab Emirates. After the deals, popular displeasure was evident on the streets of Morocco, Sudan and even Bahrain. We knew that the masses in these countries were overwhelmingly opposed to the decision made by their political leaders, and this was a consolation for us. But the situation was different in the UAE. The Emiratis, across every level of their society from political leaders to regular citizens, came out forcefully in favour of a warm and cosy relationship with Israel.
One of the most shocking and enraging developments in the fast-paced love affair between the UAE and Israel was the mutual visa waiver agreement – a first between Israel and an Arab country. After the signing of the agreement, Emirati and Israeli airlines were quick to announce direct flights between the two countries. This is it, we thought, the Emiratis are coming!
And they did come, with much fanfare and propaganda. The photos of Emirati tourists in their traditional outfits posing in historic Jerusalem next to Israelis were plastered across newspapers. The Israeli government started sharing on its official social media accounts testimonies of Emiratis explaining how “safe and secure” they feel in the country.
But almost no one wondered what we, the Palestinians, are feeling about all this.
The arrival of hundreds of Emiratis in Israel to enjoy the historic sites of Jerusalem and pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque was a slap in the face for us. After all, millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, just two dozen kilometres away from Al-Aqsa, can only dream about stepping foot in the mosque that is the third holiest site in Islam.
Of course, we Palestinian Jerusalemites were already used to seeing Muslim pilgrims from Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia or other non-Arab Muslim-majority countries at Al-Aqsa. Over the years, Palestinians rarely had any problem with these visitors, as they overwhelmingly believe this holiest of mosques should not be monopolised by any subset of Muslims, even under the devastating conditions of an occupation.
But the Palestinian Jerusalemites were not as accepting of Emirati tourists as others. While some still took the position that all Muslim tourists, whatever their citizenship, should be welcome in Al-Aqsa, many others protested against Emirati tourists being awarded with the right to easily visit Jerusalem’s holy sites for betraying the Palestinians and forming an alliance with their oppressors.
We have every reason to be frustrated when we see Emiratis and Bahrainis in Jerusalem, roaming freely under the protection of the Israeli police, taking pictures and buying souvenirs as if they are visiting just another tourist site.
For a start, it might sound unbelievable to those not familiar with our reality, but millions of Palestinians living in Palestine are denied access not only to Al-Aqsa but the entirety of Jerusalem by Israel’s occupying regime. Over the past two decades, Israel has built a complex system of checkpoints, supported by the Apartheid Wall, to deny Palestinians freedom of movement within their own homeland. An entire generation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza grew up without ever stepping foot in Al-Aqsa.
And this Israeli “travel ban” is not only targeting Palestinians living in Palestine. Palestinian refugees and members of the diaspora living in neighbouring countries are still denied their right to return, even for a brief visit.
Another point of frustration is the fact that Emiratis can now simply take a direct flight from Dubai to Tel Aviv, and walk freely into the country. And Israelis can now directly fly in to the Emirates, with almost no questions asked. This is not an option for most Palestinians. A Palestinian living in Ramallah, for example, would have to first cross into Jordan and then take a flight from the Queen Alia airport in Amman to reach Dubai. This is an arduous journey that involves many checkpoints and takes almost an entire day. Even Palestinians holding American passports cannot just fly into the Tel Aviv airport, if they are also in possession of a Palestinian ID card. So you can see why visa-free travel between the UAE and Israel is irritating to many of us, the natives who are denied that same right in our homeland.
I do not believe that anyone, including we Palestinians, deserve unconditional love and support from any nation. But the Emiratis are not even brave enough to openly say that they do not care about us and support our struggle. Instead, they repeatedly claim that the normalisation between the UAE and Israel will eventually be “beneficial” for the Palestinians. I struggle to see any logic in this assumption. All the current evidence points to these normalisation deals further emboldening Israel and its apartheid. After all, none of the normalising states, and especially the UAE, are challenging Israel on its decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian territories or its inhumane treatment of its Palestinian citizens and occupied subjects.
It is a criminal injustice bestowed upon us by Israel – we have no freedom of movement in our own historic homeland. We cannot support an Emirati citizen having the right to walk in and out of our lands at our expense, as we continue to languish in open-air prisons and struggle to survive under Israel’s illegal occupation. Whatever leaders of the Arab states normalising relations with Israel may say, their actions are not aimed at helping peace and none of these deals will ever benefit Palestinians. Those sovereign countries chose to sign those deals to serve their own national interests; they do not have the Palestinians in mind, and they should be honest about this fact.
Jalal Abukhater is a Jerusalemite; he holds an MA in International Relations and Politics from the University of Dundee, Scotland.