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In rare Zoom call with Israelis, Sudanese activists say country ready for peace

Violating local laws, group of journalists and artists from Sudan tell Israelis about the trials and tribulations of promoting normalization with the Jewish state

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Screen shot of Zoom call attended by Sudanese pro-Israel activists and a group of Israelis, October 15, 2020. (Screenshot)
Screen shot of Zoom call attended by Sudanese pro-Israel activists and a group of Israelis, October 15, 2020. (Screenshot)

Violating local laws and risking possible criminal prosecution, a handful of activists from Sudan participated Thursday in an online forum discussing with Israelis their country’s relations to the Jewish state.

Amid reports saying Khartoum may be next in line to normalize ties with Jerusalem, the activists, including journalists and artists, said the Sudanese public is largely in favor of ties with Israel, but also discussed how they occasionally face opposition for their activism.

“The Sudanese people are very interested in normalizing ties with Israel, especially since the meeting between [Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah] al-Burhan and Prime Minister Netanyahu in February,” said El-Sadig Ishaq, a human rights activist and co-founder of the Sudanese-Israeli Friendship Society, an organization founded several months ago.

“This trend of interest in ties with Israel continues to grow. As opposed to what many outside Sudan are saying, that the public tends to be against normalization — we see the opposite,” he added. “The trend is in favor, and it continues to gain momentum. That’s what we hear and see on the street, especially with young people. That’s why we felt encouraged to create the Friendship Society, because it reflects the will of the people.”

Despite years of government-promulgated anti-Israel propaganda, many Sudanese simply ignore what they were taught in school and are told by state-controlled media, he said.

“Especially young people have been able to get their news from alternative sources and have been seeing the true face of Israel for a long time. And we do our best to disseminate accurate information about Israel, as well,” Ishaq said.

Safa al-Fahal, a Khartoum-based newspaper columnist and the Friendship Society’s media adviser, said she has witnessed great support for normalization with Israel, not only in the capital but in other areas of the country as well.

“After we created the society and started to spread the message, we discovered that there is a desire to create local branches even in some remote provinces,” she said.

Safa al-Fahal, a Khartoum-based newspaper columnist, during a Zoom call with fellow Sudanese pro-Israel activists and a group of Israelis, October 15, 2020. (Screenshot)

“After 30 years during which we were cut off from the world, we now need peaceful relations with the entire world — especially Israel,” she said. “We view Israel as one of the most influential and powerful countries in the region, also from an economic standpoint.”

Last year, Sudan’s longtime ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir was ousted from power, putting the country on course for democratic reforms. The US administration has in recent weeks put much pressure on the transitional government in Khartoum to follow the lead of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and normalize relations with Israel. In return for such a step Washington has reportedly promised billions in aid and vowed to remove Sudan from its list of state-sponsors of terrorism, but the country’s leaders have so far rejected the offer.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) is welcomed by a Sudanese official in Khartoum on August 25, 2020. (AFP)

During Thursday’s Zoom meeting, Awadh Dawud, a Sudanese journalist and civil rights activist, recalled a recent failed effort to hold a press conference in Khartoum about the Friendship Society’s efforts to promote peace with Israel.

“It was canceled by officials in the government who do not yet support the normalization process,” he said. “We had rented a hall in a hotel, everything was ready, and then the notification came that the event was canceled, 24 hours before it was supposed to start. Even though we had filled all the required forms.”

Authorities also contacted the owner of the event hall, warning him that terrible things would happen to him if he allowed the press conference to proceed, Dawud said.

“But obviously we’re not giving up on our desire to hold a public event [in support of Israel ties], which we hope can take place in the coming days,” he said.

Four  Israelis — a rabbi, a diplomat, a representative from the Peres Center for Peace and the head IsrAid, an organization providing aid in disaster-stricken regions across the globe — spoke as well at the virtual “town hall,” which followed a similarly unprecedented webinar of media people from Israel and the Arab world last month.

A screenshot from a webinar during which Israeli journalists, officials and communications professionals discussed the media’s role in advancing Arab-Israel peace with media professionals from numerous Arab countries, September 21, 2020 (courtesy)

Both events were organized by the Arab Council for Regional Integration, a group dedicated to fighting the taboo against interactions with Israel that exists across the region.

“It remains a crime in Sudan to engage in any sort of human contact with Israelis,” Joseph Braude, the council’s general coordinator, told The Times of Israel after Thursday’s forum concluded, noting that some Muslim clerics recently reiterated the claim that their religion prohibits normalization with the Jewish state. A group affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group has threatened to kill anyone who engages with Israel, he said.

Still, the Sudanese activists on the Zoom call were unapologetic about their feelings toward the Jewish state.

Sudanese artist Rashid Diyab during a Zoom call with fellow Sudanese pro-Israel activists and a group of Israelis, October 15, 2020 (screen shot)

“We artists believe that culture is the way to peace, and we’re ready to play our part to bring the two peoples closer through culture,” said Rashid Diyab, who heads one of the largest cultural institutions in Khartoum.

“Instead of culture following politics, let politics follow culture, because culture could speed up the rapprochement,” Diyad said. “Art is connecting, and too bad for those who cut ties and don’t want to connect. We want to build bridges.”

Lior Ben Dor, who works on the Foreign Ministry’s North Africa desk, concurred, encouraging Sudanese people from all walks of life to visit Israel.

“If you want to organize delegations of Sudanese artists, doctors, businessmen, etc., who want to come to Israel, and get them required paperwork from your government, I commit to help with the logistics, even before ties are formalized. You are all very welcome here,” he said.

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