Palestinian directors say no to UAE-Israel “colonial cinema” deal

Israel is seeking to bar Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf from entering his homeland.

      Shadi Hatem APA images

Palestinian filmmakers are calling for a boycott of Emirati film institutions that work with the Israeli government.

This comes after the Abu Dhabi Film Commission signed a cooperation agreement last month with the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School and the Israel Film Fund, both founded by Israel’s culture ministry.

The deal paves the way for joint training programs, film festivals and creating content to promote “tolerance” and “cultural understanding between the Emirati and Israeli people.”

Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, chair of Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism, welcomed the agreement, saying it will strengthen “cultural ties” between the two industries.

By rebuffing the longstanding Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel, the agreement signed by the Emirati film body is akin to crossing an international picket line.

Almost 100 Palestinian directors, performers, producers and other film industry workers signed a statement rejecting the agreement and urging their colleagues to abide by the Palestinian call.

Signers include internationally acclaimed filmmakers Annemarie Jacir, Hany Abu-Assad, Salim Abu Jabal, Najwa Najjar and Mohammad Bakri.

They write that they “were deeply disappointed and shocked” by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s “normalization agreement to work with Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid.”

As Palestinian filmmakers, they say they have been “severely affected by this colonialism and military occupation,” which often forces them “to depend in our film productions on mostly foreign funding.”

They call on their counterparts in the UAE and other Arab states to “renounce the partnership with colonialist cinema” and “to refuse any work with any film institution in Abu Dhabi or the Arab world that concludes agreements with the Israeli government.”

“Family members”

The agreement follows the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel through the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, approved the normalization deal last week and the United Arab Emirates cabinet followed suit on Monday.

On Tuesday, an official Emirati delegation landed in Israel to sign agreements on tourism, aviation and technology.

Israel and the UAE also agreed to allow visa-free travel between them for their nationals.

This follows a one-day visit by an Israeli-US delegation to Bahrain on Sunday, led by Israel’s national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Israel and Bahrain signed agreements on healthcare, technology, tourism, trade and cooperation between their foreign ministries.

None of the agreements mentioned the issue of Palestine, according to Israeli media.

However, a joint statement by Israel, Bahrain and the US said the “parties will continue their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“We started the day as friends and we’re concluding it as family members – members of the family of Abraham,” Ben-Shabbat said.

Culture as a cover

The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel have extensively used claims that they are promoting religious and cultural tolerance as a cover for their march towards political, economic and military normalization.

Painting conflict in the region as stemming from a lack of understanding among religions or cultures is also a way to obscure its true origin: Israel’s violent and ongoing dispossession and military occupation of Palestinians and theft of their land.

A striking example of how culture and religion are deployed to blur these realities is Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, which markets itself as the first kosher caterer in the Emirates.

It is run by Elli Kriel, whose company website describes her as “born and proudly raised in South Africa by Greek parents.”

She and her husband Ross Kriel arrived in the UAE in 2013, where her husband is head of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, a group established by Jews living in the country.

Elli got her start informally making kosher meals for visiting businesspeople and rabbis attending “interfaith” conferences in the UAE.

This turned into Elli’s Kitchen, a business that played a part in facilitating the normalization between Israel and the Emirates – including feeding President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and Israeli leaders on their first visit to the UAE following the normalization deal.

“It was a thrilling moment to be included in this historic event and I was extremely proud to be able to welcome the delegates to the UAE with my kosher food,” Elli told The Jerusalem Post.

Elli’s Kitchen has also been celebrated on Israel’s Arabic-language propaganda Twitter account.

Elli and an Emirati partner are now developing a food concept called “Kosherati,” and her business expansion plans include a cookbook and a café.

The Emirates’ own Israel lobby

Meanwhile, Ross Kriel announced recently that the Jewish Council of the Emirates plans to affiliate with the World Jewish Congress.

The WJC is, however, not merely a religious grouping but a political one that lobbies for Israel and defends its crimes against Palestinians.

For example, the WJC grotesquely justifies Israel’s massacres of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip as “operations” to “protect its border towns from waves of terror and incitement.”

“The global Jewish community must work together to activate the prodigious wealth of Jewish talent in the field of public relations to counter adverse images of Israel and its people,” the World Jewish Congress asserts.

Ross Kriel appears only too happy to see the Jewish Council of the Emirates recruited into this lobby for Israel.

In a video made for the World Jewish Congress, he is visibly moved to tears when talking about the first Israeli flight openly to cross Saudi Arabia on its way to Abu Dhabi.

He also describes the relationship between Emiratis and Israelis as a “romance.”

As for Elli Kriel, according to The Jerusalem Post, she sees her business as a way to show that “Israelis and Emiratis have a lot in common.”

“We share the values of togetherness, warmth and hospitality,” she said. “It helps us to see each other’s humanity and embrace each other’s culture.”

Arab Idol star barred

But while culture is allegedly capable of building bridges and breaking down barriers between Israelis and Emiratis, it apparently holds no such power for Palestinians.

Israel is currently seeking to bar Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf from entering his homeland.

Assaf, who is from the Gaza Strip, gained international mega-stardom as the winner of the 2013 Arab Idol contest. He now lives in Dubai with his wife and children.

Avi Dichter, the head of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee, is seeking to bar Assaf from entering Israel, and possibly get him deported from the United Arab Emirates.

Dichter alleges that an Israeli research center found videos of Assaf inciting against Israel, according to Israeli media.

In a letter to the research center, Dichter wrote that “it is not possible to prevent him” from entering the occupied West Bank, but Assaf’s permit to enter Israel would be revoked.

Dichter, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet secret police, said that he is looking into how “diplomatic channels with the United Arab Emirates” could be used to prevent Assaf from “continuing his incitement campaigns.”

In a Facebook post, Assaf said that “what is being reported about preventing me from entering occupied Palestinian land” is “a continuation of the policies of oppression” that all Palestinians face.

Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.