ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistani-American woman who came under fire in the Islamic nation for leading a delegation to Israel defended the trip Monday, saying she traveled to Jerusalem with a small group of Muslims and non-Muslims to promote interfaith harmony.
Anila Ali, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen living in Washington, responded to growing criticism from Pakistanis, some of whom questioned who was actually behind the visit. She said the goal of the visit was to seek truth and to reconcile Muslims and Jews.
“(The president) of Israel received us warmly, and the people of Israel opened up their hearts and homes to us and they knew that we were Muslims and they knew that we were Pakistanis," she said, adding that Israelis knew that members of her delegation included Sikhs and Christians but they were still welcomed.
Pakistan is among the countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel because of the lingering issue of Palestinian statehood and Pakistan says no delegation from Pakistan visited Israel.
Ali said she led a 15-member delegation comprised of Pakistani expatriates to Israel earlier this month. She told The Associated Press that neither Pakistan's government nor the U.S. was behind the trip.
The state-run Pakistan Television took to Twitter on Monday to say it fired news anchor Ahmed Qureshi who visited Israel in a “personal capacity." Qureshi was part of the delegation that visited Israel with Ali, it said.
The visit was confirmed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who said he received the Pakistani expatriates. He spoke about the visit at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, saying it “showed me the great change” taking place in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords.
The Abraham Accords refers to a series of diplomatic pacts brokered by the Trump administration in 2020 that normalized relations between Israel and four Arab countries -- the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Israel already had peace deals with Jordan and Egypt, with which it fought several wars.
“This was an amazing experience because we haven’t had a group of Pakistani leaders in Israel ever in such scope and that all stemmed from the Abraham Accords, meaning Jew and Muslim can dwell together in the region,” he said.
Ali told the AP there was no truth to remarks by Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan in a speech at a rally Sunday in which he said a Pakistani delegation had gone to Israel. Khan also alleged without providing evidence that the current rulers in Pakistan “are going to recognize Israel."
“We have no intentions of speaking for the Pakistani government whether to normalize relations with Israel or not,” Ali said. “The matter is between the Israeli government and Pakistan."
Ali said the visit was co-sponsored by Sharaka, an Arab-Israeli organization founded by young leaders from Israel and the Gulf region.
For Israel, while the delegation was small and did not involve Pakistani officials, it marked somewhat of a milestone in its relations with Pakistan coming after other Muslim states have changed course and agreed to normalize ties with Israel. That's despite Israel’s continuing occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
For decades, the Palestinians counted on a wall of support from Arab and Muslim states for its cause, as a way to exert leverage on Israel so that it might make concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for recognition by those Muslim allies.
But after the Abraham Accords, that wall of support crumbled, perhaps paving the way in the future for other countries to take the same step.
Israel and Pakistan have made overtures to each other in the past, most notably when the country’s foreign ministers met in Istanbul in 2005 following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But there hasn’t been any major public push to bring the countries closer, even as Israel has tightened ties in recent years with India.
Herzog's office did not release an official statement about the meeting but rather retweeted one of the participants. The visit appeared to go under the radar in Israel, with few media covering it and those that did doing so belatedly.
Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem.