Bahrainis protesting Israel normalisation 'in secret' amid fears of Arab Spring style crackdown

Bahrainis protesting Israel normalisation 'in secret' amid fears of Arab Spring style crackdown
Bahrainis have been protesting in secret online, offline and in exile against normalisation with Israel, despite the risk of state crackdown.
5 min read
15 September, 2020
Bahrainis burning an Israeli flag and photo of King Hamad and MbZ [Instagram/@RSDBH]
Bahrain on Tuesday became the second Gulf Arab state and fourth Arab country to officially normalise relations with Israel.

The move came just weeks after US President Donald Trump made a shock announcement that the United Arab Emirates had normalised relations with Israel. 

Officials from Gulf states and Israel expressed that the Arab world has entered a "new era" with normalisation, and claimed that the conjunction of their regimes shows a more "progressive" attitude towards Israel.

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani said the deal represented a historic step towards achieving peace in the Middle East and Dubai's deputy police chief Dhahi Khalfan even went as far as to demand that Hamas is dissolved.

As the Bahraini state edges towards this new era with Israel, Bahraini citizens are refusing any form of normalisation with Israel, despite there being an ongoing crackdown on dissidents.

An Arabic hashtag which translates to: Bahrain against normalisation, has become widely used inside the tiny kingdom and people are risking their lives to protest against what they view as a disastrous deal that betrays Palestinians.

"If it wasn't for the way in which protesters were suppressed during the Arab Spring, I can guarantee you that there would be thousands taking the streets in support for Palestine right now," a Bahraini activist who identified himself as Mohammad, told The New Arab.

Risking their lives to protest

Hundreds of Bahrainis have been imprisoned since 2011 for demanding reforms in the kingdom. Many have had their citizenships stripped away and are accused of being Iranian "terrorist" mercenaries. 

Many across social media have been posting their quiet protest against normalisation. At a time of growing authoritarianism and debilitating state violence against dissidents, Bahrainis cannot afford to go out in their thousands to march for Palestine. 

During the yearly Quds Day protests that takes place on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, Bahraini police have been famous for dispelling demonstrators with violence and tear gas. In 2012, police forces shot 16-year-old Husam al-Haddad in the head, when he died from his injuries after taking part in peaceful protests on al-Quds day.

"This shows that even before normalisation, the Bahraini people have had a strong affinity for the Palestinian cause and had to pay for it with their lives," Mohammed explained.

So far, activists have sporadically made bold statements on the streets of Bahrain, such as graffitiing the word "Israel" and crossing it out, or hanging up banners on street posts, along with small, silent rallies.

"I am Bahraini and I reject normalisation with Zionism," one banner read. "Jerusalem is and will always be my cause," said another, stuck over a sign on a construction site, with one nearby saying "Bahrain is a camp for resistance, not one for normalisation."

Demonstrations took place during the night, when protesters carried Palestine flags, banners burned the Israeli and US flags. Despite the protests being quiet, arrests have already been made and police are upscaling their patrolling to prevent more pro-Palestine protests. 

"Part the mobilisation of the gangs and militias of the regime in the middle of the towns of Abu Sabia and Shakhura after the protests against the crime of normalisation with the Zionist entity," Bahraini rights organisation RSDBH said in a post, with photos of police cars and officers carrying guns across the two towns on Tuesday afternoon.

Local media reported on Monday that two brothers in Shakhura, Baqer and Ahmad Issa Al-Qattan, disappeared in what is suspected to be a state kidnapping after they protested against normalisation.

The extent in which the police will crack down on protesters is unclear, activists say.

"I can’t tell, the government have been harsh with their opposition, either they were young angry protesters or political leaders which most of them spending long sentences in prison or living in exile," Nazeeha Saeed, Bahraini writer, told The New Arab.

"Anyone who protest and the police can reach will be arrested. Other than this we don't know yet," she added.

Protests are expected to carry out sporadically across the country.

Diaspora protests

Bahrainis in exile took to their own local communities to organise protests outside of social media. On Tuesday, Bahraini diaspora in London protested outside the Bahraini embassy, wearing the traditional Palestinian kuffeyah and carrying Palestine flags in protest against normalisation.

"Down down Hamad," protesters chanted, in reference to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. 

They also carried banners of King Hamad and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed covered in shoe print, chanting "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free".

Protesters say they are on the streets in exile because they feel duty to those who cannot protest as freely inside Bahrain.

"Bahrainis in the West have a connection with those inside, and we consider ourselves a in a position where we can express their suppressed and stifled voice in Bahrain because they are ultimately unsafe," a Bahraini activist told The New Arab speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Demonstrations in Bahrain have resumed with strength and their voice is heard more than any other people rejecting normalisation with the Zionists as it is our duty to do so," they added, urging that Bahrainis across all sects reject normalisation with Israel.

The protests, however, are not expected to be ongoing because of the risk factor. The participant said that the coronavirus pandemic may deter more protests.

"I don't think it will continue for long, as it’s risky and problematic for the protesters who are just normal people who believe in the Palestinian cause and angry about the deal," Saeed told The New Arab.

The people's struggle

Covert relations between Bahrain and Israel date back to the 1990s. The two countries have in recent years upped their cooperation under the guise of deterring a perceived threat from Iran.

On social media, protesters reaffirmed the historic solidarity between Palestine and Bahrain, posting photos of Bahrainis who lost their lives taking part in Palestinian resistance over the decades.

"We want people to know that just as how the states have their history of cooperation, Bahraini solidarity with Palestine has gone on even longer. Bahrainis have died for the Palestinian cause," Mohammed said. 

The photo of one of the most famous Bahrainis killed by Israel was widely shared online during the social media protests. Mazahem Abdulhammed al-Shutair was assassinated by Israel in 1982 aged 27, while he was helping Palestinian fighters in Beirut.

Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh and Instagram: @flowerknafeh