As President Donald Trump presides over a White House ceremony Tuesday that celebrates the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, boosted by Friday’s announcement that the Kingdom of Bahrain and Israel will normalize relations, as well, the world needs to see this charade for what it is.
This is not a peace agreement but rather an accord to join forces to suppress struggles for freedom.
Friday’s development was framed as a peace agreement, but Bahrain and Israel were never at war. In fact, they had already enjoyed unofficial diplomatic, security and trade relations. While Trump may be looking to score points as a peacemaker for his presidential bid, what he is doing is simply providing the military, financial and diplomatic infrastructure to further repress popular struggles for democracy and freedom in the Middle East.
As a result of its agreement with Israel, the UAE was able to purchase high-tech weapons from the United States, including Reaper drones, EA-18G Growler jets and F-35 fighter planes. Bahrain, which stands to similarly benefit as it seeks air defense systems from the United States, is yet another Arab state eager to secure the superpower’s military backing and diplomatic impunity for gross violations of human rights and the laws of war.
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The agreement between Israel and Bahrain reflects a geopolitical alliance between repressive regimes that expands the U.S. sphere of influence in the Middle East, rather than indicates a cessation of violence or an easing of oppression. Historically, Arab states have refused to normalize relations with Israel until and when it guarantees Palestinian national rights. But Bahrain, like the United Arab Emirates most recently, did not secure a single lasting concession for Palestinians in its agreement with Israel — not even to slightly ease the 13-year blockade of Gaza, which has turned the tiny coastal enclave into an open-air prison.
Like Israel, which has been spared international accountability at least 43 times (the number of U.S. vetoes in the U.N. Security Council to block initiatives to address Israel’s treatment of Palestinians), the Kingdom of Bahrain has a vulgar human rights record and stands to benefit from U.S. tutelage.
Bahrain’s Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy rules over a majority Shia population, which is largely poor and disenfranchised. Spurred by these conditions and the popular uprisings around the region under the banner of the Arab Spring, Bahrainis began pro-democracy protests on Feb. 14, 2011. State security forces immediately responded with lethal force to these demonstrations demanding an elected parliament and a new constitution. That only radicalized the protesters. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis converged upon a central artery in the capital, the Pearl Roundabout, to demand an end to the monarchy.
Backed by other authoritarian Persian Gulf regimes fearful that the protests would spread to their front doors, Bahrain’s ruling family declared martial law, destroyed the Pearl monument and authorized 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to enter the country to help brutally crush the protests.
Amnesty International has documented that from June 2016 to June 2017, Bahrain subjected at least 169 peaceful critics or their relatives to one or more of the following measures: summons, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, imprisonment, travel bans and torture. In one illustrative incident in May 2017, Bahraini authorities detained Ebtisam al-Saegh, a Bahraini human rights defender described by Amnesty International as a “prisoner of conscience,” and blindfolded, beat and sexually assaulted her during seven hours of interrogation.
Since 2015, Bahrain has also been a member of the Saudi- and UAE-led war against Yemen. Framed as an effort to undermine Iranian influence by routing out Shia Houthi forces, the war has had a devastating humanitarian impact. According to the Yemen Data Project, the Saudi-led coalition has launched at least 20,000 airstrikes and killed 17,500 civilians. The military campaign has bombed hospitals, school buses, markets, mosques, farms, bridges and factories. Today, 10 million Yemenis are at risk of famine.
Israel’s contemporary alliance with Bahrain, for its part, continues a sordid legacy of support for human rights offenders and rogue states. During the apex of global resistance to apartheid rule, Israel provided South Africa with a lifeline. Seeing itself as analogous to the white minority at risk of takeover by a Black majority, Israel trained the South African military’s elite units, sold tanks and aviation technology to its army and was reported to have helped it develop nuclear weapons. Upon his release from nearly 30 years in prison, Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “The people of South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the apartheid regime.”
Similarly, from 1975 to 1979 — the years running up to El Salvador’s civil war, in which the government crushed a popular insurgency and more than 75,000 civilians were killed — 83 percent of El Salvador’s military imports came from Israel, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Significantly, Israel’s extension of support to South Africa and El Salvador reflected U.S. interests, as Washington was invested in the viability of South Africa’s and El Salvador’s ruling governments, thus underscoring Israel’s status as the superpower’s most unique ally in the Middle East.
Israel remains a significant exporter of military weapons, surveillance technologies and training to human rights offenders today. Investigations published by Privacy International show that Israeli companies have provided phone and internet monitoring technologies to secret police across Central Asia. In the United States, an Israeli company is among the four chosen to build a prototype for Trump’s wall along the Mexico border. And since 2001, Israeli police and military units have trained U.S. law enforcement.
Israel’s contemporary alliance with Bahrain, for its part, continues a sordid legacy of support for human rights offenders and rogue states.
Given all this, it is not surprising that following Trump’s announcement of plans to normalize Bahrain-Israeli relations on Twitter, “Bahrainis Against Normalization” started trending. The Bahraini people, still in a struggle for their own freedom, understand the deleterious impact of the U.S.-brokered deal on their lives. They also understand that prospects for their democratic future remain entwined with Palestinians’ resisting siege and apartheid.
The agreement’s description as a “peace deal” is language more aptly relegated to a reality following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger initiated the Middle East peace process, and it is now deployed to obscure a story of state violence and oppression. It is our responsibility to reveal that story and to be unequivocally clear that this is not a peace agreement but rather an accord to join forces to suppress struggles for freedom. We should be watching this moment from the front row — but to protest, rather than applaud.