Israel’s travel ban causes panic and confusion
A friend contacted me this week to ask if reports that Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world because of the coronavirus were fake. They aren’t. Jerusalem has announced a 14-day home quarantine for all travellers arriving from abroad, and non-Israeli citizens have to show they have a place to self-quarantine before they’ll be allowed into the country. It doesn’t matter where you are travelling from – South Africa included – you need to go into isolation for two weeks. This means staying in your bedroom, or moving around your apartment with a mask on, but not going outside under any circumstances. You could get a seven-year prison sentence if you disobey this order.
Thousands of flights have also been cancelled. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a difficult decision, “but it’s necessary to maintain public health, and public health is above all else”.
As of Tuesday, eight new cases were diagnosed in the country, bringing to 58 the total number of Israelis who have tested positive.
But life goes on as normal. There is no panicked shopping like there is in other countries, most notably Australia, where there has been mass hoarding of toilet paper to the point where it has created a genuine shortage for some companies. And, typical in times of anxiety, jokes are making the rounds on social media.
These include, “I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been avoiding people since way before the coronavirus,” and memes showing a new greeting – the Wuhan Shake – with people clasping feet rather than hands. According to another joke, “This morning at the post office, while I was in line, two people with masks entered. Total panic! Then, they said, ‘This is a robbery!’ and we all calmed down.”
Israel’s policy is more extreme than that of most developed nations, including those that have been harder hit by the disease. Restricting Israelis from travelling to major European countries and requiring people returning from these countries to self-quarantine has already caused enormous economic damage, particularly to tourism and airlines.
No surprise then that some claim Netanyahu’s decision has political undertones. It’s transpired that the large number of Israelis who recently returned from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington DC weren’t required to self-quarantine. This, in spite of the fact that three people who attended the conference – where American Vice-President Mike Pence and a long list of senators and congressmen were also present – had been diagnosed with the virus.
Eyebrows were further raised when the Israeli tourism minister admitted during an interview that politics and diplomacy played a role in such decision-making when it came to the United States, saying, “The relationship is especially sensitive, and when we make decisions regarding the US, it’s in co-ordination. We won’t take any unilateral steps.”
Some charge that Netanyahu didn’t want to restrict entry from the US – Israel’s closest ally and biggest aid donor – as it would be interpreted as a slap in the face, especially as American President Donald Trump has downplayed the virus. Netanyahu is struggling to build a coalition government, and faces an impending corruption trial. The last thing he needs are angry tweets from a volatile US president. So instead of singling out America, he imposed a blanket ban on travel from all countries.
But there are many Israelis who believe Netanyahu went too far. The restrictions include large community events or mass gatherings of more than 5 000 people; no international conferences in Israel; and the recommendation that that older adults over 60 and people with chronic background diseases avoid gatherings and contact with international travellers.
The local travel industry has been worst hit. Many offices have been forced to close, and it’s questionable whether the smaller ones will recover. Ronnie Shabai, the branch manager of Jerusalem Talmach travel company, says he’s lost 95% of business.
“After the message circulated that all Israelis who don’t have to travel shouldn’t do so, 50% of our trips cancelled within hours. I had to give money back to people who had already paid. I’m closing my office, and I will leave only two agents for both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv branches. We still have a small number of Israelis travelling inside the country, but that’s also decreasing, and many are cancelling the hotels they booked for Pesach.”
Shabai says it’s never been this bad, not after the 11 September attacks or even during the worst days of the intifada (Palestinian uprisings).
It’s created confusion and more than a little panic to say the least. I’ve spoken to several university students who have been unable to return to Israel as their holidays come to an end, and are stuck abroad wondering how they’ll catch up class. Exams are still underway in some schools, and there’s uncertainty if they will, in fact, take place. Will classes be held? No-one knows, and it’s difficult to determine what’s true and what’s fake from the information being circulated online. The country has also been celebrating Purim, and people who returned from international destinations have been told to stay at home, even if they weren’t in quarantine. Better safe than sorry, so the adage goes. I saw a few costumed revellers dressed up as the coronavirus, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has closed all mosques in the Bethlehem area to prevent the spread of the virus. The PA Ministry of Wakf and Religious Affairs said the decision was in accordance with the state of emergency in the Palestinian territories that was announced by PA President Mahmoud Abbas after 19 people tested positive.
Many locals who work in Israel have been barred from leaving Bethlehem. Residents are critical of the measures, pointing out that they are stricter than those imposed inside Israel, with some suggesting political motives for the decision.
As for elsewhere in the Middle East, there are, at the time of writing, about 7 640 confirmed cases across the region. Iran has the highest number of infections, and its government officials are warning that the number could spike to more than 450 000 patients, many of whom are at risk of dying. Memes and jokes aside, these are sobering numbers.
Israel-UAE deal brings hope of further normalisation
Bahrain, Kuwait, Mauretania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia… will these be the next Arab or Muslim states to establish full diplomatic and economic ties with Israel?
They could be, if the seeds of moderation and normalisation sprout successfully in the wake of the Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) deal.
Unthinkable a decade ago, the new discourse in the Middle East is about peace and prosperity, rather than the Palestinians.
This message emerged from a Zoom webinar on Monday night, ‘Israel/UAE Deal: Insights from behind the scenes’, hosted by the South African Zionist Federation. Moderated by Mpho Tsedu, chief executive of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, the speakers were Dr Nir Boms, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University and member of the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations, and Haisam Hassanein from Egypt, an expert on commercial diplomacy in the Middle East, recently based in Abu Dhabi.
On 13 August, the UAE became the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel’s right to exist, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The telephone lines have been unblocked, and an El Al flight overflew Saudi airspace for the first time last week as it brought diplomats and businesspeople to Abu Dhabi. Embassies are set to open in both states soon.
Dubbed the ‘Abraham Accord’, this deal did not emerge overnight. Relations were subterranean for decades. There was substantial interaction by entrepreneurs, academics, and civil society organisations before an elite peace deal was struck. Some 500 Israeli companies already operate in the UAE, according to Boms.
“It was the right time to bring these relations into the open, from under the table,” Boms said. “It was a win-win-win formula for Israel, the United States (US) [which backed the deal] and the UAE. Their interests aligned.”
The agreement supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political approach. US President Donald Trump could do with a foreign policy win heading into the November elections, to show the world and his constituency that he can, in fact, make a deal. For the UAE, it promised closer collaboration with both countries, including for military hardware and Israel’s high-tech knowhow.
“This agreement offers Israel the greatest chance to restore its image in the region,” Hassanein said. “It has been seen through the prism of Arab nationalism since the 1950s, and was negatively portrayed. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan never resulted in normalising people-to-people relations.” The Arab countries punished their citizens for drawing closer to Israel, which had a chilling effect.
Hassanein sees the Israel-UAE deal differently. Both sets of leaders and businesspeople have given interviews on each other’s TV stations and in newspapers. Intellectuals in both countries have supported the accords. Soon, Muslims from around the world may be praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount by travelling through Abu Dhabi. The geopolitical centre of the Arab world has shifted from Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad to the capital cities of the Persian Gulf.
Neither analyst was naïve enough to believe this rapprochement would be universally praised. As expected, there has been opposition for the UAE’s enemies, including Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Much of the Arab media has rubbished the deal. “But it has opened the door for more moderate voices to speak up for the first time, to speak about the advantages of peace,” Hassanein said.
Boms said that the deal could break a stalemate. “Ten years ago, everything was seen through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab Spring changed that paradigm, but it ushered in an Islamist Winter … the Gulf States are worried about Shi’a radicalism from Iran and Sunni radicalism from ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, and their interests align with Israel’s.”
Hassanein noted that there is a difference between the older generation of Arab nationalists that blamed everything on Israel, and a younger generation that recognises the havoc Iran is causing. Boms agreed, noting that 70% of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 30.
Boms said the UAE offers a positive third way, different from the Islamism of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the anti-normalisation and delegitimisation strategy of the Palestinian Authority. “The Palestinians have to realise that the train may leave without them,” said Boms. “If this deal works, if it brings better medicines, technology and jobs, it’s an alternative to old ideologies. It must therefore show tangible results and progress.”
There are early signs that this normalisation can spread to the region and to Africa. Malawi is opening an embassy in Jerusalem and Serbia, and Kosovo and Mali are talking about moving their embassies from Tel Aviv. The UAE is the only place in the Arab world where the Jewish population is growing, and a kosher restaurant has opened in Abu Dhabi.
Boms said this new discourse and mindset made South Africa’s support for the delegitimisation of Israel “obsolete”.
Asked Hassanein, “Who should South Africa applaud and support? Those demonstrating peace, tolerance and acceptance, or those who destroy and have no vision?”
Malawi may be first African country to open embassy in Jerusalem
The president of Malawi has said that his country would open an embassy in Jerusalem, making it the first African country to take this step, either for a diplomatic office or an embassy.
Local analysts say this is a significant move and may have been influenced by the recent ‘Abraham Accords’ between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Malawian President Dr Lazarus Chakwera made the announcement on Saturday. “The reforms will also include a review of our diplomatic presence, including our resolve to have new diplomatic missions in Lagos, Nigeria, and Jerusalem, Israel. I will be sharing more details about this in the near future,” he said as he addressed his country’s parliament. He became president in June 2020. Although he spoke of a diplomatic mission, experts believe he is referring to an embassy.
Chakwera was in Israel in November 2019 and visited Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Western Wall. Malawi is a mostly Christian country with 19.2 million inhabitants. Israel’s non-resident ambassador to Malawi, Oded Joseph, is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
On Sunday, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority would sever relations with any country that opens an embassy in Jerusalem. Within Malawi, a group of concerned citizens voiced their opposition to the plan, according to the Nyasa Times. “We object to having a Malawi embassy in Jerusalem. If Malawi is to open an embassy in Israel, let it be approved by parliament, and the mission should be in Tel Aviv,” said a member of the group, Mussa Ibrahim.
The head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Steven Gruzd, says: “The announcement could be connected to the positive momentum generated by the UAE deal.
“Remember, Chakwera is a newly-elected president in a court-ordered rerun election in Malawi,” says Gruzd. “He is setting out his governing agenda. Although both countries have maintained relations since 1964, neither has had an embassy in the other country.”
Gruzd says the announcement is significant. “If a small and resource-strapped country like Malawi sees opening an embassy in Jerusalem as strategic for its interests, it may encourage others to move their embassies from Tel Aviv. It may also be a move to draw closer to the Trump administration. Once it is opening an embassy, it does not make sense to open in Tel Aviv and then have to move.”
He believes the move may encourage other countries to think about opening embassies in Jerusalem. “It may well have a demonstration effect. In the last five years, Prime Minister Netanyahu has put considerable effort into wooing African states and breaking the anti-Israel bloc in forums like the United Nations.
“These efforts seem to be paying off. The decision to move embassies is a highly politicised one, and not without risks. So far, only Guatemala has followed the United States lead on moving its embassy. Kosovo, Serbia, and Mali are said to be considering it. But sovereign states will make their own choices.”
Local political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga says: “I think the opposition victory in Malawi provides an interesting turn of events, and anomaly in the region. I do not find it surprising the country is intending to open an embassy in Jerusalem – this seems to usher different politics in the country.
“Malawi is trending an interesting path that has not been seen in the region. A response to this on a regional level is difficult to anticipate, in the sense that most member countries on the continent seem to prioritise a bilateral relationship with Israel, while at the same time maintaining solidarity on the Palestine matter at the United Nations level or at a multilateral level,” he adds.
“The global community would watch in anticipation how Malawi might further break the ranks with other countries in the region or the continent on Israel matters or other matters. A lot is possible with Malawi, yet one cannot tell exactly how it will go.”
Sara Gon, head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations, also believes that the UAE deal has opened the space for Malawi, even though it is not a Muslim country.
“I suspect that it has wanted to support Israel wholeheartedly hence going for an embassy in Jerusalem, but the opprobrium that has faced the United States for the move has held it back,” she says. “The UAE deal makes it less risky. I think the fact that it is going to Jerusalem signals that Malawi wants a completely normal relationship with Israel – no-holds-barred. The intention is a good, solid relationship.”
Looking at how this may impact Israel’s relationships with other African countries and if they will also think about opening embassies in Jerusalem, she says: “I think they might, on the basis that in diplomacy there are usually other countries who want to make the same move but they need just one country to make the first move. I think this is particularly so with the majority of Christian countries who are tired of having to show support to the Palestinians and hatred against Israel just because they belong to the block of what were once ‘non-aligned states’.”
Regarding the global community’s response if Malawi went ahead with this, Gon says she “suspects it will be more muted than previously, except of course from the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, etcetera”.
She continues: “The problem is they have nothing to offer Malawi, so they’ll be ignored. Obviously, Malawi is desperately poor and not particularly influential, and it needs what Israel can offer it, but it is a start.”
“The South African Zionist Federation warmly welcomes Malawi’s decision to establish an embassy in Jerusalem as the recognised capital of Israel,” says its national chairperson Rowan Polovin. “This news is part of a momentous tide of improved relations between Israel, the Middle East, and Africa. We encourage the South African government to participate in this momentum of improved relations that Israel is achieving across the world, and share in the benefits that it will bring.”
Arab-Israeli actor finds himself with Fauda
For Arab-Israeli actor Ala Dakka, a character isn’t just a role. It’s another identity. Known to millions as Bashar the boxer from hit Israeli TV series Fauda, the 25-year-old superstar commits himself to acting in the most authentic way possible, and his career is on the rise.
Dakka shared stories from on and off the set with South Africans this past Saturday night in a live Zoom event hosted by the SA Jewish Report in partnership with the South African Zionist Federation and World Zionist Organization.
Born to Muslim parents, Dakka was raised in Be’er Sheva, surrounded by a predominantly Jewish population. “I grew up in the Jewish community, and throughout my life, I wondered where I belonged,” he said. “I didn’t know where to put myself. As a kid, I just wanted to be popular, so I decided to be friends with everyone.
“My life was pretty usual. I didn’t experience racism, though I knew I was different, and it made some things a little harder. I grew up in a beautiful mixture of all kinds of identities that you find in Israel. At the time, though, I cared only about soccer.”
A career in acting was never a foregone conclusion, says Dakka. In fact, he set his heart on becoming a singer, but only towards the end of his high-school career.
“I never sang before I was 17,” he laughed. “It was only in Grade 12 that I stood on a stage and sang. It really came late for me. Only when I turned 22 did I feel I wanted to be an actor, and until today, I’m not sure if I will be an actor for the rest of my life. I’ll just go with the flow.”
Dakka spent a year doing volunteer work with children in Bat Yam after matriculating, and when he contemplated a career, his family wanted him to pursue law.
“My dad is a lawyer, and he really wanted me to go to law school,” he says. “I wasn’t sure, but after volunteering, I realised that I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with law or university just yet. I wanted to be a singer.”
Dakka auditioned on the Israeli version of The Voice, but his initial reception wasn’t too encouraging. None of the judges turned their chairs when he performed, casting doubt on his aspirations.
“It was heartbreaking,” he says. “It took me some time to be willing to try again as an artist. I haven’t been back on stage as a musician since then, but I decided then to become an actor. I’m still optimistic about going back to music one day but acting quickly became the best thing in my life.”
Dakka honed his skills, starring in productions at his local theatre in Be’er Sheva, slowly growing in ability and confidence. He eventually auditioned for roles in television and film, landing his first screen role in an Israeli comedy series before starring in his first film, Beyond the Mountains and Hills, in 2016. More was to follow.
“The roles came one after the other, and I started making a living as an artist, which is a lot more than you can wish for,” Dakka says. “My parents were very scared, afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself or a family. They’re still scared, but they saw I could be successful.”
Dakka clinched his now famous role in Fauda last year after hearing about the role of Bashar in July.
“I signed up at the gym and started running, slowly changing my way of living,” he says. “I was a smoker, and used to wake up late. I realised I needed to give it 100%, so I committed to getting up to go to gym and change my state of mind. It wasn’t easy, but it gave me a new opening in life.”
After auditioning in July, Dakka was informed that he had landed the role only in December. He says he took to the role immediately, finding a boxing coach and giving himself completely to the part. Even his family seemed to welcome the development.
“My family admits that I’m talented, and my dad says I should be proud of myself,” Dakka says. “Since I started, my family has started believing in me more and more, and it’s brought me closer to them. They really like the show, and are proud of what I have done.”
“The role in Fauda taught me how much you need to put yourself through for a role. I was never an athlete, so I needed to learn how to be one first. My commitment has enabled me to make a living and be proud of what I do, so I enjoy every moment.”
While shooting scenes can be gruelling, Dakka enjoys the time he shares with his co-stars on and off set.
“It’s a 12-hour day,” he says. “It’s tough, but it’s fun, and it’s what we love doing. We want it to be unique. We always try to make it the best we can for the audience so they can enjoy it and feel it’s authentic.”
There’s is a real bond on set, he says. “We spend hours together. We’ve had parties together, and we’re still in touch today. As an actor, you work with a team and have to make sure everyone feels comfortable. If one person is upset on set, we all feel it. We build connections between us, and we share the same love.”
Dakka has received mixed reviews from fans and detractors of the series, but says he welcomes all views because the show itself presents a variety of viewpoints.
“Fauda talks about a conflict and its complexities,” he says. “How good people become evil or how evil people become good. The good and bad is so mixed, you never know what’s actually good or bad.
“The fact that it talks about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what’s making a change. People are talking about it, and the fact they are is a good thing.”
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