Mariam Barghouti & Maryam al-Khawaja
Al-Jazeera / September 27, 2020
What the Bahraini regime has done does not reflect the will of the Bahraini people.
We, a Bahraini Maryam and a Palestinian Mariam, met in an Arab cafe in the small streets of Copenhagen in 2015. At that time, one of us was escaping the harsh reality of a military-imposed occupation in Palestine and the other – navigating the pains of exile from the oppressive authoritarianism plaguing Bahrain.
We spoke of our collective pains, and hopes for the future. More than that, we listened to each other’s experiences, we laughed about the intoxicating effect of tear gas in our lungs during demonstrations in which both of us had chanted “down with oppression!” in our respective homelands.
We thought together about solidarity. Where can we meet as Bahrainis and Palestinians, both yearning for dignity and justice? Both of us were painfully aware that our struggles will be long and difficult as we swapped the stories and comparisons of our imprisonment in our respective countries.
Oppression caused us to cross paths back then, and it does today once again, albeit virtually. On September 11, 2020, the Bahraini regime announced it was normalising relations with the Palestinians’ oppressor – Israel. This brought the people of Bahrain and the people of Palestine ever closer in their experience of subjugation.
The outrage at this announcement, and before that the announcement of normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, was not because it was surprising. Gulf countries already had informal exchanges with Israel, including the purchase of military and surveillance technology to suppress local populations. Their friendly relationships were a badly kept secret. Rather it was the audacity of these ruling elites to make public the relations which go against the will of the majority of people in the Gulf that caused so much public anger.
This is why since the announcement of the normalisation deal, there have been protests in Bahrain, and even some supporters of the regime have joined the opposition in denouncing the deal.
For Palestinians, the anger at the constant news of new normalisation activities with Israel has been replaced by numbness. It has become far too exhausting to confront what has already been decided and is out of their control. At the same time, there is still fear of what these actions will bring in the future.
The normalisation fiasco has been accompanied by absurd narratives propagated by the ruling elites in the countries involved. The Trump administration in the US has called it a “peace deal”. But how can the normalisation of relations between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel be considered a peace deal when the three parties had never been at war? What peace is there in the continuation of an apartheid occupation of the Palestinian lands and the oppression of the Bahraini people?
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has presented the announcements as his latest diplomatic breakthrough in the hope of offsetting his falling political ratings and the fallout of the corruption case against him. After all, yet another charade of an election may be around the corner in which his political survival would be at stake.
In the Gulf, a new discourse has been promoted in the government-owned media and in political speeches and religious sermons that the biggest threat to the region and the rest of the Arab states is Iran, not Israel, and that Israel is actually an ally against the Iranian threat.
This “threat” narrative is used to further certain political interests; in the case of Bahrain, it is used to prop up the ruling regime and its absolute political and economic control over the country.
Worse still, the deals have also been framed as helping to promote justice and community spirit. The Bahrain-Israel deal is presented as “life-changing” for Bahrain’s small Jewish community, whose representatives “feel more comfortable now about going [to Israel] and coming [back]”.
The use of past and present marginalisation and injustices Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) Jews have suffered to counter criticism of Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians is the latest trend in Israeli hasbara. Of course, this narrative conveniently ignores the relentless oppression of Mizrahi Jews by Israel’s ruling Ashkenazi elite (Israeli Jews originating from Europe).
The UAE and Bahrain have also flaunted the potential for significant trade and economic growth that formalising relations with Israel will supposedly bring. But their people know very well that these new economic opportunities will mean more purchases of weaponry and military technology by these regimes and the import of Israeli repression tactics, which will only further entrench their tyranny and authoritarianism.
In this sense, the announcement of the normalisation deal by the Bahrain monarchy was not only a betrayal of the Palestinian people, but also another act of oppression against the Bahrainis, reminding them that they have no say, no freedom and no rights in their own country.
The ruling family, which launched an attack from modern-day Qatar and took over Bahrain by force in 1783, was only able to maintain its rule through the use of force against local resistance movements and the protection of the British empire. More recently, since the 1920s, Bahrainis have had civil rights uprisings almost every decade, also naming them intifadas, in an attempt to bring down the absolute monarchy. The monarchy, in turn, has used naturalisation of foreigners to build a loyal army and police force of non-Bahrainis, while simultaneously stripping the Indigenous population of their citizenship in an attempt to change the demographics of the country.
Indeed, the struggles of the Bahrainis and the Palestinians are remarkably similar. The monarchy in Bahrain also moved Indigenous populations from certain parts of the country, and built either literal or symbolic barriers between Sunni and Shia areas, with the Shia ones being starkly more impoverished, less accessible and with fewer government services. There are far too many similarities in the oppression of the Bahraini and Palestinian people that renders it impossible for the two populations to not recognise themselves in each other.
Under the rule of the Al Khalifa family, the Bahraini people consider themselves to be under one of the oldest occupations in the region. One of the main chants in 2011 was: “Go back to Zubara [Qatar], your visit is over.” It is important to understand the intersections between the oppression of the Palestinians and the oppression of the Bahrainis.
Many Palestinians do realise that these normalisation deals do not reflect the will of the people, but of their ruling elites, which they have not elected. They themselves are oppressed by their leaders – by the authoritarian Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas authorities in Gaza. It is for this reason, that Palestinians place their faith not in chronically corrupt and repressive leaders, but in the people that continue to confront injustice, at home and abroad.
The tragic consequence of these deals is that in the end, it is us, the people yearning to build bridges of solidarity and to find dignity and liberation in our homes, that will suffer. What will come out of them will be no different than what came out of the Oslo “peace” accords between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel in 1993 – no “peace”, but rather further entrenchment of Israeli occupation and apartheid and Arab authoritarianism.
Yet, what these deals will not do is bring down the spirit of the people and their determination to fight in solidarity. One of the pictures that was making the rounds on Bahraini social media after the announcement of the normalisation deal was of a mass protest in Bahrain in solidarity with Palestine in 1947 – showcasing the long history of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Bahrainis grow up learning about the Palestinian cause, about the oppression of the Palestinian people, and participate, when it is allowed, in protests against the subjugation of Palestine. In 2002, for example, they took to the streets to demonstrate in solidarity with the Intifada in Palestine in front of the US embassy. The Bahraini police used force and in the ensuing violence, a man by the name of Mohammed Juma’a al-Shakhouri was killed by a rubber bullet injury to the head.
It is this solidarity that has brought us together – the Bahraini Maryam and the Palestinian Mariam – who can only meet outside of our region to safely speak about the injustices and oppression and the opportunity to reimagine relationships which transcend the limitations of temporary diplomatic treaties that are more destructive than productive.
At the end of the day, it will be up to the Bahrainis and the Palestinians to maintain their struggles, to continue fighting while holding each other’s hands in solidarity. As the Palestinian prisoners of conscience wrote to Bahraini prisoner of conscience Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja in an exchange of solidarity while on his hunger strike in 2012: “Your freedom is tied to our freedom and our freedom is tied to your freedom.”
Mariam Barghouti is a Palestinian American writer based in Ramallah.
Maryam al-Khawaja is a multi-award winning international advocate on human rights from Bahrain