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How the Arab world sees the Israel-Palestine conflict

Protests in the Middle East show the centrality of Palestine.

An artist draws the Palestinian flag on a wall on the southern Lebanese border with Israel near Fatima’s Gate on December 17, 2017.
Ali Dia/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

Demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians have broken out across the Arab world this week, as Israel reels from Hamas’s massive attack and Palestinians in Gaza come under bombardment.

Moroccans, Jordanians, and Egyptians have rallied in protests large and small, even as the governments of these countries have built and maintained varying degrees of diplomatic ties with Israel. And while those demonstrations may seem jarring given the widespread deaths in Israel this week, the fact that some have cheered on violence against civilians may obscure the broader political dynamics at play — both within the Middle East and within the Arab countries themselves.

Hamas’s violence does not reflect the desire of all, or even most, Palestinians who seek rights and freedoms. But the solidarity expressed in these rallies reflects a broader dissatisfaction with how Israel, with Western support, has subjected Palestinians to military occupation since 1967. The protests also represent a rare space for political expression in largely autocratic states where regimes severely limit such speech.

In the Arab world, people have been as quick to show support for Palestine as most American politicians have for Israel. On Friday, after prayers at Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque, protesters filled the streets. As did tens of thousands of Iraqis in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, thousands of Jordanians protesting in the capital and in major cities, and hundreds who gathered outside a central mosque in Qatar, along with protesters in Lebanon, Oman, Tunisia, and Yemen. Demonstrators burned Israeli flags and chanted against Israel’s military campaign.

In the central park in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, Iraqi and Palestinian flags are laid out in a circle as thousands of protesters march in the square and surrounding streets.
A rally in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in a show of support for Palestinians, on October 13, 2023.
Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture alliance via Getty Images

Without understanding the full history of the conflict and the region, some American readers could dismiss everyone participating in these protests as “angry Arabs,” a repugnant trope that has permeated Western media for a century and was heightened after 9/11. It may still be jarring to watch for many, but the forces that drive the protests go deep — and will only deepen as the latest war unfolds.

Why Palestine galvanizes the Arab world

For Palestinians and Arabs, the war did not begin on the morning of October 7 with Hamas’s attacks on Israel. Rather, for them, the war has been ongoing since 1948, when militias expelled Palestinians from their homes and killed tens of thousands in what is called the Nakba, or catastrophe. It continued with the 1967 setback — as the Six-Day War is called in Arabic — in which Israel began occupying the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and has carried on through waves of further conflicts and protests.

That support is rooted in a history of grassroots support for Palestinians and of Arab strongmen using the cause as a populist rallying point. “It’s the open wound, the festering sore, on the Arab conscience,” Mouin Rabbani, an analyst of Palestinian politics and co-editor of the web journal Jadaliyya, told me. “When you go back to the 1950s and the 1960s, the heyday of Arab nationalism, Palestine was the central Arab cause, so much so that many Arab leaders could use it, instrumentalize it, and exploit it to either help them achieve power or stay in power or improve their popularity at home.”

Arab heads of state meet in 1970 at the Nile Hilton in Cairo to put an end to the civil war in Jordan between Palestinians and the government of King Hussein. From left to right: Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, PLO chief Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and King Hussein of Jordan.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The religious component is also important, with so many holy sites for Muslims within Jerusalem and throughout Israel and the occupied territories. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a political conflict over land, and it has never been primarily a religious war. (For centuries, Jews and Muslims had gotten along throughout the Middle East and beyond.) Yet images of Israeli security forces in mosques of significant historic meaning can indeed galvanize emotional response. And the same goes for churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, among other holy sites for Arab Christians.

Nonetheless, most Arabs, according to polling conducted over two decades by the Arab Barometer, would be willing to have diplomatic relations with Israel — but only after the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. “They’re not against coexisting with a Jewish-majority Israeli state, which is what exists now, but they will not do that until the Palestinians get their rights,” Rami Khouri, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist and a policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, told me.

“The popular sentiment across the whole region supporting Palestinian rights is very strong and very deep,” Khouri told me.

“Most Arab citizens are bludgeoned by their own autocratic systems, and increasingly by severe economic stress,” he explained. “So the Palestine struggle is vicariously seen by many in the region as an anti-colonial struggle.”

As long as both Arab rulers and their populations remained united in the idea that there could be no progress with Israel without significant progress in the Palestinian cause, normalization of Israel’s ties with its Middle East neighbors — long a goal of politicians there and in the US — was off the table. But in recent years, that had begun to change.

Where Arab rulers and citizens diverge

Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, and neighboring Jordan followed in 1993. Such deals were often far from popular at home — Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic militants who were against the peace deal. Other Arab states held out, insisting first on the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. US policy since President George H.W. Bush has been focused on a peace process that would lead to that outcome, and the goal as set out by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama was two states for two peoples.

A Palestinian flag is held high over the heads of men making a V sign in the air with their hands.
Yemeni citizens wave Palestinian flags and shout slogans against Israeli attacks during a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Sanaa, Yemen on October 13, 2023.
Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

When President Donald Trump focused on a series of normalization deals between Israel and Arab states in 2020, however, he sidelined the cause of Palestine. Saudi Arabia, which had long emphasized the importance of a Palestinian state, had already been quietly developing extensive business and military relationships with Israel. Suddenly it seemed possible that the Palestinian cause could be sacrificed by the Arab world’s rulers.

But all of the countries involved in the normalization negotiations — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco — are autocracies. And their citizens were not as eager to go along with a new Middle East. In response, the governments of these countries censored criticism of the deals in the press and stifled public protests. “Activists who were involved in pro-Palestine activism — either through local organizations or through the Gulf Coalition Against Normalization — also reported worsening online harassment, forcing many to take a step back from their activities,” Dana El Kurd, a political scientist at the University of Richmond, writes.

Surveys show how unpopular those accords were. Recent polls show their Arab support has dropped significantly since 2020, with just 27 percent of Emiratis and 20 percent of Bahrainis in favor of the accords.

“If you had democracy in the Arab world, you wouldn’t have any normalization,” historian Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University told me. “Public opinion is overwhelmingly against normalization with Israel. Overwhelmingly, in every poll in every country.”

The past few days have seen renewed calls for boycotting of Israeli-linked businesses in Bahrain and Qatar, and a resurgence of anti-normalization activism in Gulf countries, El Kurd told me. Far from being relegated to the backburner, the Palestinian cause is now front and center in the Arab world. And that is something American policymakers can’t afford to ignore.

Where the US goes from here in the Middle East

Palestine is so central to the Arab Middle East that even US military leaders historically understood the peril of ignoring the Palestinian cause.

When David Petraeus, then the top US military commander in the Middle East, went before the Senate in 2010, he warned that the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict was endangering American lives.

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests,” he testified. “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [area of responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”

But President Biden’s policies have not recognized the centrality of Palestine in the region. Instead, Biden spent last year repairing relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and prioritized a diplomatic deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel that now appears dead on arrival.

Biden told the United Nations last month that his team is working “tirelessly to support a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians — two states for two people.” But in reality, the administration’s empty commitment to the two-state solution has precluded the development of actual policies that would lead to peace.

Where does that leave a US policy focused on normalization in a region that largely cares more about Palestinians?

The governments of Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates are balancing their relations with Israel and their people’s solidarity with Palestine. The Bahraini foreign ministry “stressed the need to immediately stop the ongoing fighting between the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Israeli forces.” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, in remarks to a session of the Arab League, acknowledged the “bloody and horrifying events that erupted on Saturday, October 7, 2023” and an Arab League resolution urged restraint, warning of “catastrophic repercussions, both human and security, of the continuation and expansion of the escalation.” The Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it “deeply mourns the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives” and “stressed that attacks by Hamas against Israeli towns and villages near the Gaza Strip, including the firing of thousands of rockets at population centers, are a serious and grave escalation.”

It would seem unlikely that those countries would break off or downgrade their diplomatic relations with Israel. What seems certain is that more Arab countries are not likely to normalize with Israel. The ongoing bombardment of Gaza, and a ground assault if one goes ahead, will undermine those prospects further.

“In the short term, the normalization deal with Saudi Arabia is going to be delayed or face some level of obstacle,” El Kurd told me. “Because the whole point of them engaging on this topic is to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to meaningfully change Palestinian living conditions.’ I don’t think that’s within their ability to change, even marginally, at this point.”

Now, one hopes that Biden’s advisers are watching protests in Arab capitals with a new understanding of the significance of Palestine to any Middle East policy. An approach to the region that does not take into account the mass, popular support for Palestinian rights — as has been on display since Biden took office — is not suited to reckon with realities on the ground. By focusing on solidifying Israel’s ties to Arab leaders, Biden has neglected to listen to Arab people.

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