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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Bahrainis provoke anger with goodwill visit to Jerusalem

Civilian delegation says trip to promote peace and coexistence was planned long before Trump enraged Arab world with policy shift

Palestinians protest outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on December 11, 2017 following US president Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
Palestinians protest outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on December 11, 2017 following US president Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

A delegation from Bahrain is visiting Jerusalem in a fledgling step towards the development of relations between Israel and the tiny Gulf kingdom that is outraging Palestinians.

The visitors are a 25-strong interfaith group affiliated with the Bahraini NGO This is Bahrain, said the delegation's leader, Betsy Mathieson. About half the group are native Bahrainis and the other half expatriates who became Bahraini citizens. Ms Mathieson entered Israel on her British passport but says others in the group entered on their Bahraini passports.

"We're not here to interact with governments or politicians. We're here to talk about peace and coexistence," she said.

This is Bahrain also clarified that the group "does not represent any official body in the kingdom", in a statement carried by the official Bahrain News Agency, after the visit drew widespread criticism on social media.

Leaders of both the PLO and Hamas strongly condemned the visit, which comes days after US president Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital, touching off worldwide condemnation and protests in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and across the Arab world.

"Our visit has been planned for many months. We can't let our message of peaceful coexistence be derailed by anything happening in the political world," Ms Mathieson said.

The group includes Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, the leader of a Hindu temple and a Sikh, she said. "This is a true representative community of Bahrain."

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Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an American Jewish NGO which has an Israel office and is hosting the delegation, said it was significant that the group had come despite the controversy over Mr Trump's decision. "We are extremely buoyed and will push for other delegations to come as soon as possible. Hopefully this will lead to more good things."

The visitors spent Saturday touring in the Jerusalem's Old City, which contains sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Mr Cooper said they might meet the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, a strong supporter of Israeli settlement who dismisses the Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem should be the capital of their state.

The visit is a positive for the Israeli government, which believes that shared opposition to Iranian influence in the region will enable Israel to build ties with Sunni Arab states without ending its occupation of the Palestinian territories or conceding to their demands. But Palestinians are furious.

"To come at this time when Trump has provoked everyone and given the Arab world a big slap in the face, to come in the name of inclusiveness and tolerance to Jerusalem in which Palestinians who don't have Jerusalem IDs have no access to Jerusalem or the holy sites or their institutions or families, to do that now is unbelievable," said PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi.

"It's the height of insensitivity. They either are totally clueless or are being deliberately provocative."

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the visit "a crime against the rights of our people and against our issue and against our holy sites" and "an encouragement to the Zionist entity to heighten its crimes and violations".

Mr Cooper said the group's arrival Saturday for a five-day visit fulfilled a pledge by King Hamad of Bahrain to allow his citizens to travel freely to Israel. Mr Cooper and Wiesenthal Centre dean Marvin Hier met the king in Manama in February, when he voiced opposition to boycotting Israel and stressed his subjects would be free to visit, according to the rabbis.

"This is not a government to government thing but it is inspired by his statement," Mr Cooper said. "He gave a clear signal and here they are."

"We don't need government endorsement, we are travelling under our own steam," Ms Mathieson said. "We're here to speak about our religious freedom and to say that we have total safety."

She said different religions in Bahrain "were able to live in harmony for hundreds of years and we want to share this with the world".

But Ms Ashrawi said she did not believe "this whole lovey-dovey approach of 'we're here to show tolerance'. Then go home and show tolerance at home."

In a sense the trip is a follow-up to a visit by the king's son, Prince Nasser, to the Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles in September to unveil the king's "Declaration of Worldwide Religious Tolerance". The declaration supports freedom of religion and stresses that governments should protect minorities. It also calls for ensuring that religion "serves as a blessing for all mankind and a foundation of peace in the world".

The Bahraini national orchestra played the Israeli national anthem at the event.