From Manama to Gaza: Solidarity Between Bahrain and Palestine
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Sunday, December 16, 2012
As the Bahraini monarchy eagerly seeks to befriend Israel, the citizens of Bahrain have taken a different route, seeing parallels between theirs and Palestinians’ struggle against repression. A recent solidarity trip to Gaza by Bahraini medical officials is testament to the links that can’t be stymied by governments.
“Palestinians are in our heart since birth. It is in the heart of all Bahrainis. It is the central cause for all Arabs and Muslims – to the extent that [we are willing] to be a martyr for Palestine,” Dr. Nabeel Tammam tells Al-Akhbar.
Tammam is one of Bahrain’s leading otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat, consultants. Beyond his renowned medical expertise, he is also known for his political activism in opposition to the Bahraini monarchy, as a member of both the Bahrain Human Rights Society and the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) – the largest leftist political party in the country.
His human rights and political work have come at great risk. Together with hundreds of other medical professionals in Bahrain, Tammam was detained, tortured, and convicted as part of an overall Bahraini government policy of retribution against those who dared to support the pro-democratic protests that erupted in February 2011.
Since receiving a three-month jail sentence, Tammam has spent most of his time between his medical practice and raising awareness of the repression faced by medics and Bahrainis in general. Despite pledges by authorities to implement recommendations for reform outlined by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), this repression is ongoing.
Of late, Tammam and a group of Bahraini doctors organized and participated in a three-day medical visit to the besieged Gaza Strip in a show of solidarity and support with the Palestinian people.
This trip in late November represents but one example of the rich history of solidarity and cooperation between Bahraini and Palestinian civilians, who share an understanding of life under repression. It is the connection of these forces that clashes directly with the growing alliance between Israel and the Bahraini monarchy.
The 2012 Medical Trip
Tammam has a long history of supporting the Palestinian cause. He is a board member of the Bahrain Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy and was one of the founders of the Bahraini medical trips to Gaza, initiated in 2009 after Israel’s brutal three-week assault on the densely-populated, encaged strip of land.
The 2009 trip concluded with the signing of a number of mutual cooperation agreements between the visiting Bahraini doctors and Palestinian medical organizations that included donations of equipment and medicine, as well as planning joint solidarity actions between the two parties.
This year, Tammam explained in an email correspondence with Al-Akhbar, the goal of the trip was to take “a humanitarian stand” in response to Israel’s latest massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.
“The whole trip was at our own expense (tickets, accommodation, and transport costs) and it was all a solidarity stand, as the day we reached Gaza started the declaration of ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israel,” he wrote.
The medical team spent three days in Gaza, during which they mainly visited medical buildings such as the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Al-Shifa Hospital, the European Hospital in Khan Yunis, and the Ministry of Health, among other institutions.
“The destruction and the devastation caused to buildings, construction, and facilities were very clear as a result of the Israeli bombardment. All the serious [medical] cases were transferred to Egypt for intensive medical care. Only the mild and moderate ones remained in the local hospitals for follow-up treatments,” Tammam noted to Al-Akhbar.
The 2012 trip also sought to further expand on the “Twinning Project” that was proposed in 2009. The “Twinning Project” aims to nurture greater cooperative work in varying fields of medical specialization, and included the creation of training courses between Bahraini and Palestinian medical staff for extreme war-like situations, as well as an offer by the Bahraini medical team to provide treatment for Palestinians when needed.
Like in 2009, this year’s trip was not restricted by authorities, but it was not officially sanctioned either.
“I [tried] to get permission from [the] Bahrain embassy in Cairo to enter Gaza,” Tammam explained. “I went there to meet the ambassador and after a long period of time waiting I couldn't meet him or even get [a] reply.”
Because the Bahraini authorities weren’t interested in getting involved, the organizers relied on contacts within the Pharmacist Guild and other colleagues in Gaza, and coordinated with Palestinian and Egyptian officials to arrange and carry out the trip.
The omission of official support should not come as a surprise when considering the position of the Bahraini monarchy towards Palestine and Israel in the past two decades.
During the height of Israel’s attack on Gaza in November 2012, the Bahraini interior ministry rejected numerous requests by several groups to organize a pro-Gaza march in the country, only allowing sit-ins within official buildings. The ministry justified the ban under the pretext that it was necessary “in order to preserve security in implementation of the decision to ban demonstrations and gatherings.”
A month prior to the announcement, authorities had implemented a complete ban on all protests and gatherings in an attempt to crack down on ongoing mass dissent. So far, more than a hundred Bahrainis have died since the uprising began, most killed by security forces, while hundreds of others have been injured in the subsequent crackdowns.
From the onset, the Bahraini monarchy attempted to de-legitimize the protests by painting it under a sectarian paradigm and as a conspiracy guided by Iranian hands, despite evidence to the contrary. By evoking the Iranian specter, the Bahraini authorities relied on a military intervention by its Gulf neighbors and support of its Western allies in order to ride out the growing wave of discontent.
Along the same line, the perceived threat over Iran, one that has shaped the monarchy’s domestic and foreign policy for decades, has pushed the Bahraini monarchy to covet closer ties with Israel, which also views the Islamic republic as its greatest enemy in the region.
This alliance between Israel and Bahrain was first officially carved out in early 1990s after the 1991 Madrid peace conference, growing tighter in the last few years after Bahrain pulled out of the Arab League boycott in 2005.
Various US diplomatic cable documents disclosed by WikiLeaks have shown the depth of these ties between Bahrain and Israel. In one document, senior level Bahraini officials have privately stated their willingness to meet Israeli officials on a number of occasions, going so far as signaling their agreement with the Israeli positions on core contentious issues such as denying Palestinians their right of return.
More so, one leaked diplomatic cable shows Bahrain’s king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa disclosing to the US ambassador in Bahrain at the time, William T. Monroe, that there were already “contacts with Israel at the intelligence/security level” and the Bahraini king added that “Bahrain will be willing to move forward in other areas.”
Yet the stances and statements made at the senior political level do not represent the general Bahraini populace, most of whom are vehemently opposed to any type of positive relationship with Israel, as a plethora of examples throughout time have shown.
In one case within the cable documents disclosed by WikiLeaks, American officials noted that Bahrain’s foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa’s meeting in 2007 with Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, outraged most of Bahraini society.
Similarly, another cable document filed by US officials relates how a Washington Post opinion piece written by Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, in which he called for furthering ‘dialogue’ with Israel was heavily criticized throughout the country.
Besides the cable documents, other examples of Bahraini social and civil solidarity actions in support of Palestinians contradict the position of the Bahraini monarchy. They range from the boycott by human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja of a UNESCO human rights conference that was honoring her father, political prisoner Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, because the same event was honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres, to the dramatic spectacle of a Bahraini lawmaker setting an Israeli flag alight during a parliamentary session a few weeks ago.
And the solidarity is not simply one-sided.
Mutual Recognition of Repression
“Yes, they [Palestinians] were aware of the whole issue with a clear image of the situation in Bahrain. They were supportive of the pro-democratic movement. There were no misconceptions shown in regard to the situation in Bahrain,” Tammam maintained in regards to Palestinian opinions towards the uprising in Bahrain he had come across during his recent visit.
Indeed, his statement has a claim of truth when casually glancing at how Palestinian media sites framed the uprising in comparison with other regional media agencies’ reliance on sectarian infused narratives and reorienting the issues to shed a more sympathetic light for the benefit of the Bahraini monarchy.
But the definite reflection of this acknowledgement between the Palestinian experience under Israeli colonialism and occupation with that of the Bahraini experience of oppression under the al-Khalifa monarchy manifested in a letter written by Ameer Makhoul, a Palestinian prisoner languishing in an Israeli prison, dedicated to Bahraini political prisoner Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, titled “Your freedom is our freedom and our freedom is your freedom.” In the letter, Makhoul wrote:
When the will is free and the cause is just, and you embody both, the human is capable of making miracles happen, and no oppressive, tyrannical, murderous regime can harm it, not the Bahraini regime, subject to US colonial imperialism, or the Israeli colonialism system in Palestine. It is the system of colonialism and its puppet regimes that have lost all legitimacy; while the people are legitimacy and its source.
As the Bahrain monarchy’s alliance with Israel continues to develop, it will undoubtedly be matched and contrasted by the growing solidarity of pro-democratic Bahrainis and the Palestinians. The former is driven by self-preservation and political calculations of officials, while the latter is an alliance that is governed by a mutual recognition by the people of their respective suffering and the rights owed to them.