Morocco – Israel: A year on, has Palestine gone from national cause to a lost one?

By Nina Kozlowski
Posted on Friday, 31 December 2021 09:40

Morocco Trump Jerusalem Fallout
A Moroccan women shouts as she holds a Palestinian flag during a protest with others in the streets of Rabat, Morocco, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, after a recent U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

A year after the normalisation of relations between Rabat and Tel Aviv, can the Kingdom really play a role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Here are some answers… 

The celebration of the first year of renewed diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel on 22 December was sober. Under the benevolent eye of the head of American diplomacy, Antony Blinken, a simple video conference was held between the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita, and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid.

The Israeli minister of economy, Orna Barbivai, is expected in Rabat at the beginning of 2022, and Bourita may make a visit to Israel “very soon”. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Kingdom reiterated its support for a two-state solution.

Palestine was a national cause, today Moroccans want to go on holiday to Tel Aviv. It is a different time, a different generation.

On 22 December, the day of the video conference, several hundred Moroccans gathered at 7pm in 43 cities of the country, at the initiative of the Moroccan Front for the Support of Palestine and Against Normalisation, to protest against the tripartite agreement. In Rabat, however, the gathering was banned.

The memory of 7 April 2002 seems very distant. On that day, Islamists, far-left and civil society activists succeeded in gathering a million people for a gigantic pro-Palestinian demonstration in the administrative capital, with the help of the authorities. At the time, American reporter Stephen Smith believed that King Mohammed VI, who is also the chairman of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), had to “reconcile the passions of his people with Realpolitik”.

Last year, in order to influence Moroccan opinion, Nasser Bourita used one of the following arguments: the normalisation of relations with the Hebrew State would make Morocco a “credible intermediary with all the protagonists” and “would reactivate the devices” aimed at serving the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, things seem to have changed in the Kingdom. “Palestine was a national cause, today Moroccans want to go on holiday to Tel Aviv. It is a different time, a different generation,” says a figure of pro-Palestinian activisms, but not without irony.

The ambiguous games of Hassan II

Ambiguity… Or a tightrope act has always been the name of the game on this issue. Hassan II has never cut ties with Israel, yet he has also continued to support the Palestinian cause. Consequently, he has become a key player in the Middle East peace process and a privileged interlocutor of the West. The sovereign has sometimes played both sides. According to former head of Israeli intelligence General Shlomo Gazit, in 1965, the former sovereign authorised Mossad to spy on meetings between Arab leaders in Casablanca, who were then planning an attack on Israel.

The Moroccans “gave us all the necessary information and did not hide anything from us. They gave us everything as soon as the conference had ended,” says Rafi Eitan, a politician and former Israeli intelligence officer. The information gleaned by the Israeli agents may have contributed to the Hebrew state’s victory during the Six Day War in 1967. Still, this did not prevent Hassan II from sending Moroccan troops to the battlefront or committing himself to the right of return for the Palestinians.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, he again sent 6,000 fighters of the Royal Armed Forces (FAR) to fight alongside the Syrian contingents. In 1975, with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), Hassan II created the Al-Quds Committee to denounce “Israel’s desire to occupy, Judaise and alter the Muslim and Christian monuments of civilisation in the city of Al-Quds, an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and the capital of the Palestinian State”.

Between 1977 and 1978, Hassan II tried to mediate between the Arab countries, mainly Egypt, and the Israelis, and organised several secret meetings. In 1986, the Moroccan sovereign invited Shimon Peres to his palace in Ifrane in order to work for the recognition of the PLO among the Israelis. It was only until much later that the public learned that several days before the meeting, Peres secretly went to the royal palace disguised as a woman, to prepare the summit.

However, unlike Egypt, Hassan II never overcame normalisation. It is now done, and the political and sometimes military support of Hassan II for the Palestinian cause – as ambivalent as it was – seems to have given way to an essentially humanitarian support.

Moroccan support in figures

In the Kingdom, the privileged instrument of this policy is none other than the Bayt Al-Quds agency, the financial arm of the Al-Quds Committee. Since its creation 26 years ago, this agency has financed several social projects to the tune of $57m.

Between 2000 and 2007, Morocco made a one-off donation of $2.8m. From 2008 onwards, the state made regular donations of between $70,000 and $6.5m. To the point of becoming the best participant in the committee, which includes Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Niger and Pakistan. Moroccan individuals and institutions have donated over $20m to the agency since 1975.

In the end, according to a Bayt Al-Quds report, Morocco’s funding accounts for 87% of the contributions from all countries. The Moroccan government also pays the agency’s operating costs, which amount to $1m per year.

With this money, the Kingdom has restored a Moroccan zawiya near the Wailing Wall and seven mosques; financed and fitted out the Maison du Maroc, a cultural centre, for $7m dollars; and financed or built a dozen schools or high schools for $11m. In 2020, the agency spent just under $2m on education, health ‘social affairs’.

The Palestine tax, levied on cigarette packets, brings in around MAD70m ($7.5m) per year. In 2018, only MAD8m was distributed to the Bayt Al-Quds agency with MAD50m going to Rwanda, Jordan and the Republic of Congo.

Mohammed VI is financing several large-scale projects from his own funds. Among them, the reconstruction of a wing of the Al-Quds hospital as well as the Faculty of Agronomy in Gaza, which was destroyed by Israel in 2009, for more than $6m. In 2014, when Gaza was the victim of Israeli raids, the sovereign responded to the emergency by sending $5m in aid to Gaza.

More recently, last May, in the face of a new Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the sovereign ordered the dispatch of 40tn of essential goods to the Palestinians, transported by FAR planes.

Ismail Haniyeh after Mahmoud Abbas

It was at the time of this very crisis – the most violent since 2014 – that Washington, via the Biden administration, approached Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to try to curb the escalation of tensions between Israel and Palestine. Resolutely balanced, Morocco first expressed “great concern” on 9 May. The next day, the police dispersed two gatherings in support of Palestine in Casablanca and Rabat.

In the aftermath, the head of government at the time, Saad Eddine el-Otmani – who was also secretary general of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) – expressed to the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, “the categorical refusal of the Kingdom of Morocco of all the measures of the occupation authorities that affect the legal status of the Al-Aqsa mosque and Al-Quds”, and assured them that Palestine was still and always would be a “national cause”.

On 11 May, the ministry of foreign affairs more firmly denounced “the violence perpetrated in the occupied Palestinian territories” and recalled that the Palestinian cause was at the “top of its concerns”. A few days later, the authorities eased up and tolerated marches in support of Palestine, a first since normalisation.

On 16 June, a bombshell announcement by the PJD: a Hamas delegation led by Ismail Haniyeh would visit the Kingdom. The last time a Palestinian political figure had visited Morocco was in 2014, and it was Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, on a visit that was much more consensual.

The visit of the Hamas leader was an initiative of the PJD, but got the green light from the palace, which took several months to accept. Ismail Haniyeh said the visit took place “under the auspices of His Majesty Mohammed VI”. The event killed three birds with one stone: it restored the image of the PJD, legitimised Hamas, which had previously been politically isolated, and established Rabat as an intermediary that counts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the other hand, the visit of the Israeli minister of defence, Benny Gantz, on 25 November, to Morocco, triggered the anger of Fatah and Hamas. At the time of the announcement of normalisation, they had remained more or less measured. These two political parties spoke of “a stab in the back”. The result? In early December, Mahmoud Abbas toured the Maghreb, without passing through the Kingdom…

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