Many Moroccans are finding it hard to balance their support for Western Sahara with their empathy for Palestinians
“The triumph of royal wisdom: the whole world says the Sahara is Moroccan,” reads the front page of Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia, a pro-state daily newspaper stocked with dozens of others on a press stall, a few meters away from the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat.
On Monday, 17 July, Morocco said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognised Rabat’s sovereignty over disputed Western Sahara and is mulling opening a consulate in Dakhla.
Since then, close-to-state media has hailed the Israeli recognition of Morocco’s “well-thought” diplomacy as a victory.
But for Mohammed, the sixty-three-year-old press stall owner, “it’s a shame.”
“Today, I am ashamed to be Moroccan. I have never felt this way,” he told The New Arab as he served the few customers checking his stall.
“In this street, we used to protest in thousands of Zionists’ offence against Palestinians. Today we celebrate them,” he added.
The “Moroccanity of Sahara” is a core national cause for almost every Moroccan and one of the few cases on which liberals, socialists and Islamists take the same stand.
The former Spanish colony was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then, it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Rabat and Algeria-backed Polisario Front.
The UN recognises neither sovereignty over the disputed territory, and peace talks have so far failed mainly because Polisario refused Rabat’s autonomy plan in the territory.
But, for many Moroccans, the Palestinian cause is as important as “their Sahara.”
“It is unfortunate that the outcome is to seek legitimacy and sovereignty from a criminal entity that occupies the dearest, purest, and holiest parts of the Muslim world,” wrote Hassan Benajeh, a human rights activist and member of the Justice and Charity Group (the most prominent Islamic group in the country).
The Moroccan Observatory Against Normalisation perceived the Israeli announcement as “a poisoned gift that will lead to the loss of the national unity around the Sahara issue,” Aziz Hanawi, an observatory member, told the TNA.
Meanwhile, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), reluctant to normalisation, has yet to comment on the announcement.
On the other hand, some Moroccans took to social media to celebrate the Israeli announcement as a step forward in gaining international recognition of Rabat’s “legitimate control” over the territory.
“But what good news! We are delighted with this historic decision! A slap for our former historical partners” tweeted an account with an eight-pointed star emoji on its bio – a sign primarily used by the rising Moroccan nationalist movement, the Moorish.
In December 2020, Morocco and Israel normalised ties in exchange for the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara and a promised American embassy in the disputed territory.
Rabat has lobbied since then for a similar Israel recognition of its sovereignty. According to Israeli journalist Edi Cohen, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted Rabat to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in exchange.
Three years later, Netanyahu let go of his condition under pressure from some Likud party members “not to tie Jerusalem to the Sahara issue,” added the Israeli journalist in a tweet.
Over 20 countries, including UAE and Jordan, have inaugurated consulates in the disputed territory in a supportive move of Morocco’s control over the region. Though, the Biden administration has annulled the embassy plan amid international criticism.
The author is the Morocco correspondent for the London-based Qatari news website, New Arab from where this piece was originally published