by Gerhard Arnold, Theologian and Publisher, Middle East correspondent for this magazine, Würzburg
Beer Sheva, Israel, 7 October 2023: Column of smoke from the impact of a Hamas rocket fired from the Gaza Strip
The 15th of September 2020 could have been a milestone in Arab-Israeli relations. Through the mediation of US President Trump, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel signed the Abraham Accords in Washington, in which the three governments set out to strengthen peace and foster economic and cultural cooperation, combined with full mutual diplomatic recognition. They were building on the peace treaties signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Morocco joined the Abraham Accords in December 2020.
After taking office, current US President Joe Biden sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to join the 2020 agreement. Secret talks began. In a television interview with Fox News on 20 September 2023, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the following about the status of the consultations: “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part. And we have good negotiations. (…) Every day we get closer.” People sat up and took notice and some hopes were raised.
The shock: the Hamas attack
On Saturday, 7 October 2023, the Islamist terrorist organisation Hamas launched a massive and unprecedented attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip with thousands of highly motivated fighters. How would the Arab countries that had normalised their relations with Israel react?
Reactions in Jordan and Egypt
A few days after the start of the war, Jordanian King Abdullah II said that “no peace was possible in the Middle East without the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.” Reuters reported further on 11 October: “King Abdullah has since the start of the latest conflict been engaged in a flurry of diplomatic efforts with Western and regional leaders urging swift action to de-escalate the situation, officials say.”
Immediately after the Hamas attacks, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry began a series of telephone consultations with foreign colleagues, seeking to encourage both parties to return to the path of negotiations with the ultimate goal of reaching a just settlement of the Palestinian question with a two-state solution.
Well-known Egyptian media followed the same course. After 7 October, the media accusations against the Israeli government that it “continues untold crimes against humanity towards 2.3 million Palestinians” became increasingly harsh, as reported in Al Ahram on 14 October. In addition, the Egyptian government made it very clear that there could be no compromise on the country’s security if refugee flows in the Gaza Strip were to move towards the Egyptian border.
No condemnation of the unimaginable massacres perpetrated by Hamas in Israel was forthcoming in Egyptian and Jordanian government statements, nor in their mainstream media.
Reactions from Bahrain and the UAE
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain stated clearly in a press release on 10 October 2023: “The Ministry highlighted that the attacks launched by Hamas constitute a dangerous escalation that threatens the lives of civilians. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its regret for the loss of life and destruction of property, offering its condolences to the families of the victims and wishing the injured a swift recovery. The Ministry affirmed the Kingdom of Bahrain’s denunciation of the reported kidnappings of civilians from their homes to be taken as hostages.”
Initially therefore, Hamas was held responsible for its attacks, sympathy was expressed for the victims and the taking of Israeli hostages was condemned. Later however, as civilian casualties mounted in the Gaza Strip, Bahrain’s stance became harsher. The Gulf Kingdom recalled its ambassador from Israel on 2 November, when its representative had already left the country. Whether the latter left voluntarily or was expelled was the subject of media speculation.
On 5 November 2023, the Gulf Daily News published a long article by Palestinian Haya Ferrej from the Gaza Strip, entitled “The Holocaust of Gaza”. In a self-pitying mode, she focused purely on her own role as a victim, making no mention of Hamas’ crimes against the Israelis: “The truth is this hateful and blatant aggression on innocent Palestinians in Gaza is escalating day after day. The Palestinians are paying the price for it with their blood, their children, their loved ones, their homes and everything they possess.”
On 8 October, 2023, the Foreign Ministry of the UAE made the same statement on the Hamas attack as Bahrain. On 21 October, however, President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan posted: “The UAE stands unwavering in its calls for the utmost protection of civilian lives, unimpeded access for humanitarian aid, and an immediate end to hostilities in the Gaza Strip”. As the number of civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip increased, so did the anger of the UAE Foreign Ministry.
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, wrote an opinion piece entitled “Gaza’s never-ending catastrophe” in the Khaleej Times (Dubai) on 22 October that deserves attention. Without expressing any sympathy for Hamas, their crimes against the Israelis are clearly identified, but the Palestinians’ experiences of oppression in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are also described. “When Rabin and Arafat shook hands in 1993, they raised hopes that peace between Israel and Palestine was feasible.” This is something that needs to be taken up again.
Comparable moderate positions can also be found in other newspapers in the UAE, which is not surprising. Media, politics and education are committed to the principle of promoting the peaceful coexistence of peoples, countries and religions.
Abraham Accords – definitely dead?
The Abraham Accords were linked to the dream of creating regional stability and keeping the Palestine issue out of the picture. Saudi Arabia’s talks with Israel, initiated by Washington, were well underway until a few weeks before the start of the war. Under the pressure of its anti-Israeli population and other Arab States hostile to Israel, the Kingdom, as the region’s political heavyweight, has been obliged to suspend further talks with Israel for the foreseeable future. Bahrain has scaled back diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, while the UAE hopes that the conflict will soon subside as it has massive interest in further economic, technological and military cooperation with Israel.
In the Arab media examined, the question is rarely raised as to whether the Islamist organisation, Hamas, with its programme of wiping out Israel completely, is capable of making peace with Israel at all. And how could the Shiite terrorist organisation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Israel-hater like Hamas, be included in a regional peace solution? How could Iran? Nor is any serious thought being given to how the West Bank could be politically unified with the Gaza Strip as part of the two-state solution demanded by all sides. All this leaves many questions over the future of Arab-Israeli relations unanswered.
is a German protestant theologian and publisher. Born in 1948, he served as minister in the Lutheran Church of Bavaria and was teacher of religion at a High School in Kitzingen from 1982 to 2009. Mr Arnold published numerous monographs and essays in the field of contemporary church history on the themes and issues of ethics of peace and international security policy.