Fri. Mar 24th, 2023
JERUSALEM: When Israel struck an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to open diplomatic ties in 2020, it brought an electrifying sense of achievement to a country long ostracized in the Middle East.
Officials insisted that Israel’s new ties with the UAE, and soon after with Bahrain, would go beyond governments and become society-wide pacts, stoking mass tourism and friendly exchanges between people long at odds.
But over two years since the breakthrough accords, the expected flood of Gulf Arab tourists to Israel has been little more than a trickle. Although more than half a million Israelis have flocked to oil-rich Abu Dhabi and skyscraper-studded Dubai, just 1,600 Emirati citizens have visited Israel since it lifted coronavirus travel restrictions last year, the Israeli Tourism Ministry told The Associated Press.
The ministry does not know how many Bahrainis have visited Israel because, it said, “the numbers are too small.”
“It’s still a very weird and sensitive situation,” said Mursi Hija, head of the forum for Arabic-speaking tour guides in Israel. “The Emiratis feel like they’ve done something wrong in coming here.”
The lack of Emirati and Bahraini tourists reflects Israel’s long-standing image problem in the Arab world and reveals the limits of the Abraham Accords, experts say.
Even as bilateral trade between Israel and the UAE has exploded from $11.2 million in 2019 to $1.2 billion last year, the popularity of the agreements in the UAE and Bahrain has plummeted since the deals were signed, according to a survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an American think tank.
In the UAE, support fell to 25 percent from 47 percent in the last two years. In Bahrain, just 20 percent of the population supports the deal, down from 45 percent in 2020. In that time, Israel and Gaza militants fought a devastating war and violence in the occupied West Bank surged to its highest levels in years.
Israeli officials say Gulf Arab tourism to Israel is a missing piece that would move the agreements beyond security and diplomatic ties. Tourist visits from Egypt and Jordan, the first two countries to reach peace with Israel, also are virtually nonexistent.
“We need to encourage (Emiratis) to come for the first time. It’s an important mission,” Amir Hayek, Israeli ambassador to the UAE, told the AP. “We need to promote tourism so people will know each other and understand each other.”
Israeli tourism officials flew to the UAE last month in a marketing push to spread the word that Israel is a safe and attractive destination. The ministry said it’s now pitching Tel Aviv — Israel’s commercial and entertainment hub — as a big draw for Emiratis.
Tour agents say that so far, betting on Jerusalem has backfired. The turmoil of the contested city has turned off Emiratis and Bahrainis, some of whom have faced backlash from Palestinians who see normalization as a betrayal of their cause. The Palestinian struggle for independence from Israel enjoys broad support across the Arab world.
“There’s still a lot of hesitation coming from the Arab world,” said Dan Feferman, director of Sharaka, a group that promotes people-to-people exchanges between Israel and the Arab world. “They expect (Israel) to be a conflict zone, they expect to be discriminated against.” After leading two trips of Bahrainis and Emiratis to Israel, Sharaka struggled to find more Gulf Arab citizens interested in visiting, he said.
When a group of Emirati and Bahraini social media influencers in 2020 visited the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam, they were spat on and pelted with shoes in Jerusalem’s Old City, said Hija, their tour guide.
When another group of Emirati officials visited the flashpoint site accompanied by Israeli police, they drew the ire of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, who issued a religious edict against Emiratis visiting the mosque under Israeli supervision.
Most Emiratis and Bahrainis who have visited Israel say they forgo their national dress and headscarves in order not to attract attention.
The Islamic Waqf, which administers the mosque, declined to answer questions about the number of Emirati and Bahraini visitors and their treatment at the compound.
Palestinian rage against Emiratis is not confined to the sacred esplanade. Emirati citizens visiting and studying in Israel say they face frequent death threats and online attacks.
“Not everyone can handle the pressure,” said Sumaiiah Almehiri, a 31-year-old Emirati from Dubai studying to be a nurse at the University of Haifa. “I didn’t give into the threats, but fear is preventing a lot of Emiratis from going.”
The fear of anti-Arab racism in Israel can also drive Gulf Arabs away. Israeli police mistakenly arrested two Emirati tourists in Tel Aviv last summer while hunting for a criminal who carried out a drive-by shooting. Some Emiratis have complained on social media about drawing unwanted scrutiny from security officials at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
“If you bring them here and don’t treat them in a sensitive way, they’ll never come back and tell all their friends to stay away,” Hija said.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned for a sixth term as prime minister last week, has pledged to strengthen agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Sudan. Formal ties with Sudan remain elusive in the wake of a military coup and in the absence of a parliament to ratify its US-brokered normalization deal with Israel.
As a chief architect of the accords, Netanyahu also hopes to expand the circle of countries and reach a similar deal with Saudi Arabia.
Yet experts fear his new government — the most ultranationalist and religiously conservative in Israel’s history — could further deter Gulf Arab tourists and even jeopardize the agreements. His government has vowed to expand West Bank settlements and pledged to annex the entire territory, a step that was put on hold as a condition of the initial agreement with the UAE.
“We have a reason to be worried about any deterioration in relations,” said Moran Zaga, an expert in Gulf Arab states at the University of Haifa in Israel.
So far, Gulf Arab governments have offered no reason for concern.
The Emirati ambassador was photographed warmly embracing Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of the coalition’s most radical members, at a national day celebration last month. And over the weekend, the UAE’s leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, called Netanyahu to congratulate him and invite him to visit.
It’s a different story among those who are not in the officialdom.
“I hope that Netanyahu and those with him will not set foot on the land of the Emirates,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political scientist, wrote on Twitter. “I think it is appropriate to freeze the Abraham Accords temporarily.”
AMMAN: The Ministry of Local Administration and the International Labor Organization held a workshop to introduce the sixth phase of Employment through Labor Intensive Infrastructure in Jordan project targeting Syrian refugees.
The project is funded by the German Development Bank, reported Jordan’s News Agency on Tuesday.
It focuses on improving infrastructure through labor-intensive methods that benefit communities in the long term, such as road and school maintenance, soil improvement and water conservation activities in farms and environmental cleaning services.
The project’s sixth phase is expected to provide 1,000 short-term jobs in 31 northern and central municipalities for Jordanians and Syrian refugees, designating 30 percent of employment to women and 5 percent for disabled people through funding worth €7 million ($7.6m) provided for the municipalities.
Being implemented in cooperation with the ministries of Local Administration and Agriculture, the project includes maintenance of municipalities, afforestation and training sessions on professions that qualify participants for the labor market.
The project’s infrastructure supervisor engineer, Anas Bakhit, briefed participants on the goals, phases, proposals and mechanisms of choosing employees.
The employment scheme started in 2016 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis in cooperation with several Jordanian ministries, and will end in 2024.
JERUSALEM: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel on Tuesday for a sharp escalation of violence in the West Bank as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged calm on both sides and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to a two state solution.
Calling for “the complete cessation of unilateral Israeli actions, which violate the signed agreements and international law,” Abbas reiterated the Palestinians’ longstanding demand for Israel to end its occupation.
“We are now ready to work with the US administration and the international community to restore political dialogue in order to end the Israeli occupation of the land of the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he said in a statement.
WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday added seven Iranian entities to its trade blacklist for producing drones that Russia has used to attack Ukraine, according a posting by the US Department of Commerce.
Nearing a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allies have scrambled to gather and deploy air defenses to defeat cruise missiles and Iranian-built kamikaze drones that have attacked energy infrastructure targets this winter.
Earlier this month, Canada announced it would buy a US-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) for Ukraine. NASAMS is a short- to medium-range ground-based air defense system that protects against drone, missile, and aircraft attack. The United States has provided two NASAMS to Ukraine, with more on the way.
Other ground-based air defense systems such as Raytheon Technology Corp’s Patriot have been pledged by the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands as allies hope to stave off further power disruptions.
The Iranian entities added to the blacklist are Design and Manufacturing of Aircraft Engines, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization, Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar Company, Paravar Pars Company, Qods Aviation Industry, and Shahed Aviation Industries.
The Commerce Department posting said the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) produced are being transferred to Russia for use in Ukraine, activity that is contrary to US national security and foreign policy interests.
PARIS: An Iranian court has handed jail sentences of over 10 years each to a young couple who danced in front of one of Tehran’s main landmarks in a video seen as a symbol of defiance against the regime, activists said on Tuesday.
Astiyazh Haghighi and her fiance Amir Mohammad Ahmadi, both in their early 20s, had been arrested in early November after a video went viral of them dancing romantically in front of the Azadi Tower in Tehran.
Haghighi did not wear a headscarf in defiance of the Islamic republic’s strict rules for women, while women are also not allowed to dance in public in Iran, let alone with a man.
A revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced them each to 10 years and six months in prison, as well as bans on using the Internet and leaving Iran, the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) said.
The couple, who already had a following in Tehran as popular Instagram bloggers, were convicted of “encouraging corruption and public prostitution” as well as “gathering with the intention of disrupting national security,” it added.
HRANA cited sources close to their families as saying they had been deprived of lawyers during the court proceedings while attempts to secure their release on bail have been rejected.
It said Haghighi is now in the notorious Qarchak prison for women outside Tehran, whose conditions are regularly condemned by activists.
Iranian authorities have clamped down severely on all forms of dissent since the death in September of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly violating the headscarf rules, sparked protests that have turned into a movement against the regime.
At least 14,000 people have been arrested, according to the United Nations, ranging from prominent celebrities, journalists and lawyers to ordinary people who took to the streets.
The couple’s video had been hailed as a symbol of the freedoms demanded by the protest movement, with Ahmadi at one moment lifting his partner in the air as her long hair flowed behind.
One of the main icons of the Iranian capital, the gigantic and futuristic Azadi (Freedom) Tower is a place of huge sensitivity.
It opened under the rule of the last shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the early 1970s when it was known as the Shahyad (In Memory of the Shah) Tower.
It was renamed after the shah was ousted in 1979 with the creation of the Islamic republic. Its architect, a member of the Bahai faith which is not recognized in today’s Iran, now lives in exile.
The President of the Arab Parliament, Adel bin Abd al-Rahman al-Asoumi, met with the President of the Pan-African Parliament, Chief Fortune Charumbira on Tuesday.  
The officials met on the sidelines of the Conference of the Union of Councils of Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Algeria, a statement by the Arab Parliament said. 
The two sides reviewed regional and international interests, and agreed on full coordination in international forums in support of all Arab and African matters.  
The Speaker of the Arab Parliament affirmed that the Arab and African regions possess many common denominators that contribute to supporting Arab and African matters, especially the Palestinian issue and the Libyan crisis.


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