In 2020, Fatema Al Harbi was one of the first Bahraini activists to visit Israel after the two countries agreed to establish full diplomatic relations. On Tuesday, she visited Gainesville for the first time to discuss her grassroots peace-focused initiatives.
“I went to Israel and that sort of started the whole thing,” said Al Harbi. “That’s when I found that I want to advocate for peace and build bridges between Israelis and Bahrainis and Jewish people and Muslims.”
Al Harbi is the Gulf affairs director for Sharaka, which means partnership in Arabic. The organization was founded in 2020 by leaders, activists and influencers to develop bonds between young people in their respective countries.
The Sharaka tour of Florida kicked off in Miami, and has since visited other universities and community centers. The conference in Gainesville was held at the University of Florida’s Hillel building, home to Jewish life for students. In a merging of worlds, students had the opportunity to learn more about the realities of life in the Middle East as an Arab influencer activist.
“I went to see the community and religious places like the Western Wall and Al Aqsa,” said Al Harbi. “My only goal was curiosity.”
This curiosity was made possible in September 2020, when Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed a bilateral normalization agreement called the Abraham Accords. Later in the year, Morocco joined.
“We need to cooperate with each other,” said executive director Dan Feferman. “We can’t be led by past conflicts or one-sided perceptions of past conflicts that hold the region back.”
Some UF students have already had a chance to visit some of the countries included in the accords.
“Not in a million years did I think I would travel to these countries in 2023,” said Amit Sapir, a Jewish student at UF. “I think it’s an absurdly cool opportunity.”
Sapir had the opportunity to travel to both Morocco and the United Arab Emirates through the normalization agreements. There, he learned about Jewish communities he hadn’t previously been exposed to. Now, he’s brought what he learned back home.
“I think that there’s a lot of room to grow between the Muslim and the Jewish ties on campus,” said Sapir. “I think we can take a big step forward as far as integrating our Middle Eastern identities.”
Jordan Gedaibe is another UF student who had the opportunity to travel to Morocco and learn about changing attitudes.
“It was pretty inspiring to hear about the developments,” he said. “I remember sitting in my senior year of high school when I got the text from my dad about the peace deal between these countries.”
Although the feeling among many is enthusiasm for the peace deal, tourism has gotten off to a slow start.
Currently, there is a rise in tourism from Israel to countries like Morocco and Bahrain, but a relatively low number of tourists from the countries included in the accords traveling to Israel. However, Al Harbi is confident this number will rise.
When Al Harbi first returned from Israel, she received a lot of criticism, both in-person and online. But when she traveled back to the country in 2021 with a delegation, the feelings back home were much warmer.
“We didn’t receive the hate I received by myself a year before,” she says. “It’s because of projects like ours in the region.”
Breaking preconceived notions is one of the core tenets of Sharaka. Feferman speaks of the ignorance he has seen throughout his travels.
“I know people in Israel who are like, all Arabs hate us,” he says. “And other people may just have bad impressions of Israel from watching their own news.”
Zachary Weiner, a UF student, attended and helped set up for the conference. He said that Sharaka hit the nail on the head when it comes to diplomacy.
“I feel like personally, I learned a lot about how we should accomplish things in a holistic way, as opposed to politically,” Weiner said. “We have to look at it from a more humanistic perspective.”
Feferman reiterated throughout the talk that Sharaka is an apolitical organization that tries to accomplish peace on an individual level.
“Diplomats signed agreements, but it’s up to the people to carry them out.”
Sharaka’s next goal is to see an Israel-Saudi Arabia peace deal.
Political affairs director for Sharaka Ahmed Khuzaie said, “This is a strategy by the [Arab] Gulf States to move forward. The smaller countries will start, and then the bigger countries will go forward led by Saudi Arabia.”
While Saudi Arabia is home to the Holy City of Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam, Israel is home to holy sites for all three of the world’s top religions with nearly two million Arabs calling Israel home. While a peace agreement between the two countries has never happened before, activists here remain hopeful.