Telephone calls between UAE, Israel ring for the first time
DUBAI-The Associated Press
Women wearing face masks against the coronavirus walk past United Arab Emirates and Israeli flags at the Peace Bridge in Netanya, Israel on Aug. 16, 2020. The UAE flag was displayed to celebrate last week's announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to establish full diplomatic relations.
Telephone calls began ringing on Aug. 16 between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, marking the first concrete step of a U.S.-brokered diplomatic deal between the nations that required Israel to halt plans to annex land sought by the Palestinians.
Anger over the deal however continued as well, with protesters in Pakistan criticizing the UAE and Iran making new threats about the accord, which will see the Emirates become only the third Arab nation to currently recognize Israel. The UAE responded by summoning Iran's charge d'affairs to criticize earlier comments by Iran's president it described as threatening.
But for Dubai's small expatriate Jewish community, which has worshipped for years at an unmarked villa in this city-state, the calls represented so much more than just the convenience of being able to directly dial loved ones in Israel.
"There's a sense of a miracle upon a miracle upon a miracle, as all of these hurdles fall away and people at last can come together and start talking,'' Ross Kriel, the president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, told The Associated Press.
Direct telephone calls have been blocked in the Emirates, a U.S.-allied federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, since its founding in 1971. That backed the standing position of Arab nations at the time, that Israel must first grant concessions to the Palestinians before being recognized, one of their few points of leverage.
Since Aug. 13's announcements, Associated Press journalists have tried to make calls between the nations without success. But around 1:15 p.m. on Aug. 16, AP journalists in Jerusalem and Dubai could call each other from both landline and cellular phones registered to Israel's country code +972.
Over an hour later, Emirati officials acknowledged that Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan had called his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi. The Israelis later acknowledged the call as well, saying the block had been lifted from the Emiratis' side.
Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel issued a statement "congratulating the United Arab Emirates on removing the blocks.''
"Many economic opportunities will open now, and these trust-building steps are an important step toward advancing states' interests," Hendel said.
Also on Aug. 16, Israeli news websites that had previously been blocked by UAE authorities, like the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post and YNet, could be accessed without using means to bypass internet filtering in the Emirates.
In the UAE, a recorded message in Arabic and English would typically play prior to Sunday saying calls to +972 numbers could not be connected. The advent of internet calling allowed people to get around the ban, although these too were often interrupted.
Some in Israel used Palestinian mobile phone numbers with +970 numbers, which those in the UAE could call.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced Thursday they were establishing full diplomatic relations in the U.S.-brokered accord. The historic deal delivered a key foreign policy victory to President Donald Trump as he seeks reelection, and reflected a changing Middle East in which shared concerns about archenemy Iran have largely overtaken traditional Arab support for the Palestinians.
Palestinians maintain it puts a just resolution of the Middle East conflict even farther out of reach. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contended Sunday that the deal with UAE shows Israel doesn't need to retreat from occupied land sought by the Palestinians in order to have diplomatic ties with Arab states.
Deals between Israel and the UAE are expected in the coming weeks in such areas as tourism, direct flights and embassies. Early Sunday, the Emirates' state-run WAM news agency announced a UAE company had signed an agreement with an Israeli company for research and study of the coronavirus pandemic.
The move has sparked anger among some who see it as a betrayal of longstanding efforts to establish an independent state of Palestinians. In Pakistan, hundreds of Islamists rallied Sunday to denounce the Emirati-Israeli deal. The Jamaat-e-Islami party chanted slogans against the United States and burned effigies of Trump. They also set ablaze American and Israeli flags.
Those protests mirror others by Palestinians that have seen images of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan burnt, torn and trampled upon. That's enraged some in the UAE, a nation of autocratic rulers where speech is strictly monitored. Emiratis online encouraged fellow citizens to report comments critical of the country to law enforcement.
The deal also has enraged Iran and Turkey, regional rivals to the UAE.
On Aug. 16, the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces called the UAE's decision a "disaster.'' Mohammad Hossein Bagheri urged Abu Dhabi to "revise'' its position or the Iranian military may take a different approach to the nation. He did not elaborate on what that approach would entail.
"If an incident happens in the Persian Gulf and violates the national security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, even a tiny bit, and we see it from the UAE, we will not tolerate it,'' Bagheri said.
On Aug. 16, the WAM news agency also reported the Emirates summoned Iran's top diplomat in the country to complain about speeches by officials in Tehran it said were "unacceptable and inflammatory and had serious implications for security and stability in the Gulf region.''
The UAE reminded Iran its duty to protect its embassy in Tehran, where protesters had gathered the day before.
Diplomatic posts have been overrun in the past in Iran, including in the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis.
For Dubai's small but growing Jewish expatriate population, the UAE's move toward diplomatic ties represents a new achievement. Alex Peterfreund, a cantor for the community, read a passage of the Torah for visiting AP journalists.
"To start from scratch is quite exciting, to know that you start a community where there was actually almost no Jews in all those centuries, it's motivating you also,'' Peterfreund said. ''We feel (like) pioneers.''