Bahraini Voices Against Normalization with Israel

People stage a protest against Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Muharraq, Bahrain on April 08, 2023.
People stage a protest against Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Muharraq, Bahrain on April 08, 2023. (c) Ayman Yaqoob, Anadolu images

Bahrain's signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, alongside the United Arab Emirates, did not come out of the blue or without precursory signs. It happened after years of allowing Israeli economic and sports delegations to visit Bahrain and efforts by the Bahraini authorities to buy Israeli spyware to use against political opposition and human rights activists.

Both Bahrain and the UAE are host to US military bases and enjoy high-level economic, security, and diplomatic relations with the United States, which makes it difficult for them to oppose US policy on any issue. However, the history of political mobilization differs widely in the two countries. For decades, many movements and revolts demanding political change and reform took place in Bahrain, while the UAE has remained more stable with dissenting voices only visible in the country’s prisons.

Bahrain’s signing of the Accords did not receive the consent of the public nor the approval of the Council of Representatives. Nor was the agreement signed after a popular referendum. Rather, it came as a unilateral decision by the government – a body that is controlled by the royal family in Bahrain. Not surprisingly, the decision was met with public outrage expressed both on social media and through unauthorized, spontaneous demonstrations across the country.

While groups that rejected the Bahraini government’s normalization with Israel spared no effort to show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause, their protests, anger as well as their solidarity reached a pinnacle since the beginning of the war on Gaza. Masses of people demanded that the government rescind the normalization agreements which included, in addition to the Abraham Accords, agreements in security, economy, and tourism, among other areas, calling on Bahrain to expel the Israeli ambassador and recall its ambassador to Israel.

The authorities showed some flexibility in dealing with the popular reaction to the onslaught on Gaza, by allowing some demonstrations and solidarity gatherings to take place, something they had not allowed for more than nine years. The government also called for an end to the conflict between Hamas and Israel, while maintaining its diplomatic agreements and relations with Israel.

Does Bahrain need normalization with Israel?

For over 70 years, Bahrain's stance was not overtly supportive on Palestine and the Palestinian cause, although its educational curricula labeled Israel as an occupying force and underscored the Palestinians' right to their land and the hardships of living under occupation. Despite this, Bahraini authorities ensured they maintained a stance that was not too hostile toward Israel but short of formal diplomatic relations.

When Bahrain decided to sign the normalization agreement, it cited the restoration of Palestinian rights and the pursuit of the Arab Peace Initiative; the same motivations cited by the UAE. However, these objectives did not align with Palestinian aspirations. Indeed, the Palestinian leadership was quick to reject the US-Bahraini-Israeli tripartite declaration on the normalization of relations between Israel and Bahrain, describing it as a "betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa, and the Palestinian cause."

Observers believe that Bahrain's primary motivation for signing the Abraham Accords was to strengthen its ties with the United States, especially during Donald Trump's presidency. Trump prioritized relations with the Gulf states and their normalization with Israel over human rights issues in exchange for massive trade and military deals. This approach marked a departure from the Obama administration, which had criticized the Gulf states' human rights record and called for democratic reforms that meet the aspirations of the peoples of the region.

Bahrain's interest in normalizing relations with Israel also stems from a shared strategic interest with the United States with the aim of being able to counter Iran. The Bahraini authorities view Iran as a significant threat, especially that Bahrain is a country where a Sunni regime governs a Shiite-majority population.

Despite talks of the economic benefits of normalization, production capacities tip the balance in favor of Israel. Bahrain's economy stands to gain little and serves primarily as a new market for Israeli security, technology, and other goods. On the tourism front, there is little enthusiasm among citizens of either country to visit the other, with Bahrainis generally opposing such exchanges while Israelis are concerned about their security when considering travel to Bahrain.

From criticism of normalization to intense boycott efforts

Boycotts against Israel in Bahrain are not new. They were not the result of signing the Abraham Accords or the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza. In 2002, Bahraini authorities licensed the “Bahraini Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy” by a decision of the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. The association is founded by political activists from various political, religious, and national backgrounds and includes members of the Bahraini royal family.

Various segments of the Bahraini society expressed their rejection of normalization and their solidarity with Palestine, from elected members of the parliament to political associations, civil society organizations, and the political opposition from across the spectrum.

Criticism from members of the Council of Representatives was mild, largely due to amendments to the “Exercise of Political Rights” Law enacted in June 2018. These new amendments barred “leaders and members of political societies that were dissolved by a final court judgment for serious breaches of the Kingdom’s constitution or its laws” from running for election or holding office in the Council of Representatives. This provision, often referred to as the “political isolation law,” resulted in a parliament populated by independents who were less vocal in their criticism of the government. In contrast, the political opposition and civil society organizations have maintained a more outspoken and firmer stance opposing any form of normalization with Israel and strongly criticized its offensive in Gaza.

Bahrain initially reacted to the 7 October attack through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and called on all parties to exercise restraint, calm, and immediately cease escalation to preserve lives and property. It warned that the “continuation of violence will impede the efforts at achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” and called on the international community “to take its role in ending the armed conflict and protecting civilians in line with the international humanitarian law, in addition to supporting the peace process and establishing the Palestinian state according to the two-state solution and other international legitimacy resolutions.” On 9 October, this call was followed by a statement from the Foreign Ministry stressing “the need to immediately stop the ongoing fighting between the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Israeli forces, warning that the attacks launched by Hamas constitute a dangerous escalation that threatens the lives of civilians, expressing its deep regret for the great loss of life and property.”

The position of civil society actors was uncompromising, as Hadeel Ibrahim Kamal al-Din,1In a conversation with the writer on November 29, 2023. a lawyer and member of Bahraini Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy, said: “As an Arab and a Bahraini, I cannot accept any form of normalization with this usurping entity. Since the beginning of the Zionist occupation of Palestine, which oppressed, killed, and destroyed the Palestinian people, Bahrainis have considered the Zionist entity to be an explicit, uncompromising enemy. After 7 October, however, the whole world witnessed its brutality, as it flouted all human rights principles, and the heinous crimes it committed shocked the world, which was able to see the true face of this entity. Many have become convinced that there can be no peace and there can be no normal relations with criminals."

She added: “The Bahraini people will not accept any form of normalization with this entity, especially after these brutal crimes that should constitute an incentive for our government to end normalization. We demand the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the ending of all forms of diplomatic representation, and all forms of normalization with the Zionist entity, and even its criminalization.”

Zainab Al-Darazi, another member of the Bahraini Society Against Normalization,2In a conversation with the writer on November 29, 2023. said: “The news of normalization with the terrorist Zionist entity was not a surprise to us as Bahrainis. Gulf states are accustomed to paving the way for all their decisions without the people’s participation, typically by talking about these decisions for a long time in the media. We all knew that a normalization agreement would be reached, while they were shrouded in mystery and their main provisions concealed. All we knew was that normalization with the Zionist enemy would take place, and an attempt to completely bury the Palestinian cause, considering that it was a solution for peace, and with this, the Palestinian issue would end.”

Al-Darazi pointed out that Qatar had long hosted an Israeli consulate, and that the Sultanate of Oman received Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates normalized relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia is holding discussions to normalize relations. She adds: “This is with the exception of Kuwait, where influential patriotic political forces reject normalization.”

Kamal al-Din confirmed that she is proud as a mother “that my son was born in a house that believes in the justice of the Palestinian cause and the right of the Palestinian people to reclaim all their land, and that the Zionist entity is our enemy and an enemy of our nation. My son also learned to boycott all those who support the Zionist entity,” adding: “What is happening in Gaza cannot go unnoticed! The people of Bahrain are committed to the nation's causes, and the Palestinian cause is a compass for us, as it has a special place in our hearts. Our people have stood, and will always stand, with Palestine until all lands and rights are restored.”

Kamal al-Din, along with thousands of others, participated in sit-ins and demonstrations allowed by the Bahraini authorities after they had for nine years prohibited demonstrations from taking place in the country. The government allowed the holding of a limited number of solidarity sit-ins and demonstrations in which several thousand Bahrainis and residents expressed solidarity with Palestine and called for an end to the war on Gaza and the end of normalization with Israel. These demonstrations took place in limited areas such as a sit-in in the square near the headquarters of the Bahraini Society Against Normalization in Manama and in front of the Palestinian Embassy in Manama, as well as protests near Hamad Ali Kanoo Mosque in Muharraq and the sit-in in Al Saya Square in Busaiteen. Dozens of people also protested in front of the building that houses the Israeli embassy in the Bahrain Financial Harbor, for less than an hour and under the watchful eyes of the security forces. This comes at a time when the UAE has prohibited any criticism of normalization or any show of solidarity with Palestine.

Some of these demonstrations voiced direct criticism of the authorities in Bahrain for their normalization with Israel, which “kills Palestinians,” and considered the ruling regime complicit in the crime. Slogans were heard such as “Al Khalifa, you agents, you lackeys of the Americans”  “The people want to abolish normalization”, “Normalization is a crime, in a dignified nation that does not accept defeat”, “Your alliance is a disgrace. Palestine is Arab, and the rulers have sold out the cause.

Al-Darazi said: “The people of Bahrain condemn normalization. It was only the Bahraini regime that took this step, along with those who supported it. The government of Bahrain has normalized and allowed the Zionist entity to penetrate all state institutions. It is striving, in a top-down approach, to make the public accept normalization.”

She explained, “Through events, statements, and campaigns with leftist and Islamic Bahraini political forces and civil society organizations such as the Women’s Union and other women’s associations, we continue to reject normalization, and to use events related to Palestine to categorically reject [normalization] which we consider to be an act of treason and demand its end, and call for the ambassador of the terrorist Zionist entity be expelled from Bahrain.”

She points out that, “After three years of normalization, the Bahraini people remain steadfast, and are getting stronger. I believe that what happened in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and the genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza have strengthened our faith. The children and youths from whom the regime deliberately concealed the cause, their eyes were opened to the existence of this unrecognized usurping entity, while now the Palestinian cause has become alive, in every home, in the hearts of people, young and old, men and women. It is a part of us, of our history and our lives. All Bahrainis agree to expel the ambassador and eliminate this scourge that is normalization, and we are capable of that as Bahrainis and Arabs.”

Al-Darazi added: “What the US and Arab and Gulf states are calling for is not peace. It is a surrender. It does not restore rights. Rights are taken with determination and struggle; they do not come with dreams, words, and imaginings. Attempts to kill the humanity of demanding freedom for Palestine will not succeed. The freedom fighters and martyrs of Gaza have proven that humanity and empathy still exist.”

Speaking to a former representative in the Bahraini parliament3In a conversation with the writer, November 27, 2023. who preferred to remain anonymous, he said: “Solidarity with the people of Palestine, especially during the battle of Al-Aqsa Flood, is widespread despite the limited political space for its expression. The people of Bahrain used what limited space they had with intelligence, savvy, and insight, through several means the most important of which is the broad and active use of social media, as well as solidarity sit-ins, civil council seminars, and writing petitions, letters, and statements rejecting normalization and condemning the aggression against Gaza.”

The MP cited fundraising campaigns through the Bahraini Red Crescent Society and charitable associations and holding licensed and unlicensed demonstrations to express the solidarity of the people of Bahrain across their religious, political, and ethnic diversity, as well as the participation of expats in vigils and demonstrations. This reflects an overall popular consensus in Bahrain that Palestine is a central cause and a compass of the struggle against Zionism, an enemy that is difficult to coexist with, in addition to the struggle for peace and security.”

Voices of the boycott

Since the initial phase of normalization, there have been active calls for boycotts, but these increased in intensity during the recent war on Gaza. Many accounts on social media called for boycotting the products of American and European companies that support Israel. Some of these companies operate inside the settlements, and others support or invest in Israeli companies. Such calls re-emerge every time there is an Israeli aggression against Palestinians. This time, however, the Bahraini public was more committed to the boycott, to the point that some of the restaurants and cafes appeared empty of customers.

Legal expert Kamal al-Din commented, “With our comprehensive experience across various fields, the rationale for seeking expertise from occupiers or engaging in cooperation with them escapes me. They are occupiers who have exploited Palestine's resources and occupied its land. How can governments that are normalizing relations expect any benefit from them? Their sole focus is on their own interests, not the benefits of the countries normalizing relations with them."

The former MP shared, “Individuals have their preferences, and governments their agendas. We understand that normalization with the Zionist entity encompasses more than just diplomatic ties, extending to security, the economy, and tourism. However, as people who fundamentally oppose normalization at all levels, these considerations do not sway us. We consistently urge the government to cut ties, expel the ambassador, and shut down the embassy in Manama. At the grassroots level, our response to normalization has been robust on social media and through civil councils across Bahrain, with a firm commitment to economically boycotting all Zionist products entering our nation and continuously rejecting cultural and tourism normalization.”

He further stated, “This stance mirrors the Bahraini people's awareness and steadfast positions on the Palestinian issue, the significance of its holy sites, and the historical suffering of its people under Zionist occupation.”

Al-Darazi, representing the Society Against Normalization, spoke passionately about the importance of the boycott movement: “Ever since Bahrain dissolved the office dedicated to the boycott of Zionist products, our organization has been tirelessly working to bolster the Palestinian cause and keep the spirit of boycott alive, both online and offline. Boycotts are essential; they are how we safeguard our cause and our identity.”

She further urged government officials and ministers to take a stand, suggesting they should resign if their duties necessitate engagement with Zionists: "I call on all ministers and state officials, men and women alike, to step down from their positions if it means having to shake hands with Zionists or collaborate with them. Such actions would make them complicit in the harm inflicted on Palestinian children, staining their hands with Palestinian blood,” she asserted.

Diplomacy: Business as usual

Despite the many demands to expel the Israeli ambassador and sever diplomatic ties, the authorities in Bahrain turned a blind eye to these demands and limited its action to suspending flights to Tel Aviv due to the security situation. The Bahraini ambassador also returned to Manama without being summoned, while the Israeli ambassador left due to security threats. Despite this, Manama did not sever diplomatic relations, expel the ambassador, or even halt economic and security agreements with Israel.

In his response to Bahrain maintaining its position on normalization, the First Deputy Speaker of the Shura Council (upper house of parliament), Jamal Fakhro,4In a conversation with the writer, November 29, 2023. said: “The official position of the Kingdom of Bahrain is clear in supporting the two-state solution within the resolutions of the Arab League Summit and international legitimacy resolutions.”

He added: “The Palestinian cause is the cause of Arab and Islamic nations, and the peoples of these nations can only stand in solidarity with it until the goals of the Palestinian people are achieved by establishing their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital on the pre-June 1967 borders. The Arab Muslim people of Bahrain cannot deviate from this path and will remain loyal to its pledge to support the Palestinian people wherever they are, in Gaza, the West Bank, or the diaspora.”

Fakhro pointed out that at the popular level, “the people of Bahrain have made a decision to support the Palestinian cause, and expressed this by all available peaceful means, whether through demonstrations, fundraising, media or moral support, or even political support in international parliamentary forums through the legislative authority.”

Despite the brutal war in Gaza, Bahrain maintains its relations with Israel, for the same reason that it signed the normalization agreement, which is to satisfy its foremost international ally, the United States. Another reason is the general mood in the Gulf region, which is tending toward normalizing relations with Israel, whether in the short or long term. This includes Bahrain’s big sister nation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has already confirmed that normalization with Israel is only a matter of time.

Despite facing security constraints, Bahrainis took to the streets to express their solidarity with Gaza, calling for an end to the conflict and the cessation of normalization efforts with Israel. Bahraini families actively sought out alternatives to products that financially or morally support Israel, a practice that has become increasingly common across the country as a sign of their steadfast solidarity with Palestine.

For over 71 years, Israel was considered an adversary with no formal relations with Bahrain. Despite being geographically distant, separated by three countries and over three thousand kilometers, Bahrain shifted its stance to align with the regional trend of normalizing relations with what was once deemed yesterday's enemy, now today's ally, in 2019. This shift in relations persisted unaffected by Israel's military actions in Gaza in 2021 and 2023 – ongoing conflicts that have deepened the divide between Bahrain's authorities and significant portions of its populace. These citizens have been clamoring for democratic reforms since 2011, a demand that has since seen an increasingly deteriorating political and legal landscape in Bahrain.


1 In a conversation with the writer on November 29, 2023.
2 In a conversation with the writer on November 29, 2023.
3 In a conversation with the writer, November 27, 2023.
4 In a conversation with the writer, November 29, 2023.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.