Palestinians feel the Arab world has let them down

Prof. Elie Podeh December 2023
Op-eds / The Gaza Campaign

Palestinian feelings about the Arab response to the war in Gaza can be summed up in one word: disappointment. This sentiment is shared by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians in general.

The disappointment within Hamas stems primarily from what it regards as the lax response by Iran and Hezbollah. Not only did the two deny any connection to its decision to attack Israel on October 7, but their military response has been limited.

Iran activated its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen against Israel and the United States, but did not take any military or other action itself.

High expectations

Hamas expected a more significant Hezbollah response given the group’s military capabilities and proximity to Israel. But Hezbollah faces strong domestic opposition to war with Israel that would spell disaster for Lebanon.

Syria – Iran’s proxy and ally – has also largely remained aloof, as a result of domestic constraints and previous animosities with Hamas.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, a member of the Hamas political bureau, expressed his disappointment in an interview with Al Jazeera, saying “we had high hopes for Hezbollah and our brothers in the West Bank, but we are amazed at the shameful position of our brothers in the Palestinian Authority.”

With the exception of Qatar, Hamas may not have had particularly high expectations of Arab countries, especially since some have even outlawed the organization (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) or expelled its representatives (Jordan).

However, the concluding statement of the November 11 Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, while harshly condemning Israel, made no mention of Hamas and reiterated the decision of the 1974 Rabat summit – that the PLO, of which Hamas is not a member, is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Hamas does not regard condemnation of Israel and humanitarian aid to Gaza as substitutes for a proactive stance, which would include suspending peace and normalization agreements with Israel, economic sanctions on the West and Israel, and other punitive measures available to the wealthy Gulf States.

ARAB OIL and gas producers could have announced an embargo on the countries that support Israel, as they did after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, or at least threatened to reduce their output, thus raising prices. Such a move is not in the cards, however. In fact, this is the first regional war that has led to sharp price declines for the benefit of major oil consumers with the cost of a barrel dropping from $82 to just $74 (as of December 20).

Though Jordan has recalled its ambassador from Israel, the move was predictable given four precedents during previous wars. Saudi Arabia also froze the normalization talks with Israel, but this, too, was not a surprise. Egypt and the other normalization countries did not recall their ambassadors.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry made an explicit statement with regard to Israel, saying “we have a very solid foundation in terms of the peace agreement that has shown its resilience; its ability to overcome challenges. And we are fully committed to maintaining the peace and continuing to have a normal relationship and the channels of communications that are deep and have been productive to both countries.”

His country’s condemnation of Hamas has been low-key, while the rulers of Bahrain and the UAE have called the October 7 massacre a “barbaric” act.

A notable exception was the Houthi response, escalating the conflict in the Red Sea and posing a threat to Israel and global maritime traffic in the Bab al-Mandeb straits. Yet, the Houthi response only serves to underscore the feeble Arab response to Israel’s war in Gaza.

THIS HAS prompted Palestinian frustration and rage. One of Hamas leaders, Khaled Mashaal, urged Islamic representatives in Morocco on November 23 to press their government to sever relations with Israel, calling such relations a “mistake.” He added that “it would be real support for Palestine that would put pressure on Israel and its allies… What is needed today is a political front that says ‘no’ to Israeli aggression, transcends differences of opinion and unites against Israel.”

Mashaal’s statement backfired, being perceived in Morocco as interference in its internal affairs.

Arab media have also echoed the Palestinian frustration. Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara, for example, characterized the Arab states’ response to the war as “dim and weak” – just as it had been in Israel’s four previous rounds of war with Hamas – and called for the de-normalization of relations with the Jewish state. He was particularly virulent in criticizing rich countries that “have the means to influence events, but don’t mean what they say.”

Palestinian journalist and lecturer Khaled Abu Toameh accused the Arabs of “betraying” the Palestinians. Palestinian researcher Mohsen Muhammad Saleh, meanwhile, described the Arab position on the fighting in Gaza as a “new low.” A majority of Palestinian intellectuals expect the Arab states to take concrete steps against Israel and the West, refusing to settle for hollow declarations and humanitarian aid.

THE PALESTINIANS have a long history of bitter disappointment with their Arab brethren. It goes back to the failed intervention of the Arab states in preventing Israel’s independence in the 1948 war, followed by the Palestinian refugees’ feelings of humiliation at their treatment in the Arab countries where they sought asylum. Subsequent developments deepened their anger: their sense of abandonment by Sadat when he made peace with Israel (1979), and Arab failure to prevent the PLO’s expulsion from Lebanon (1982).

In their two uprisings (intifadas) against Israel (1987-1991 and 2000-2005), the Palestinians railed at the Arab world for failing to provide them with military and diplomatic aid. Then came the 2020 Abraham Accords that bypassed and ignored the Palestinians.

While certain Arab countries have assisted over the years with funding, hosting, training and diplomacy, among them Syria, Iraq, Libya and Algeria, the aid was limited and fell far short of furthering their struggle for independence.

Palestinian disappointment with the Arab states is well reflected in Khalil Shikaki’s opinion polls. In 2017, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the territories, two-thirds of West Bank and Gaza residents claimed the Arabs had not stood by them. For most, the 2020 normalization agreements with Israel were also a stinging betrayal.

Most Arab media supports the Palestinian cause as do many citizens of Arab states. The mass Arab protests against the war might well have been far more widespread had it not been for government-imposed restrictions, reflecting the decades’ long disparity between public Arab attitudes toward Israel and the policy of Arab rulers.

THE RULERS of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco see Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood by extension, as a threat. Thus, just as the Arab states applauded behind the scenes when the Begin government destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, so Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza largely serves Arab interests.

These countries also have vested interests in economic and security ties with the United States, which they are reluctant to jeopardize by turning on Israel. In particular, Egypt and Jordan cannot afford a return to a state of war with Israel for economic and demographic reasons, even at the cost of domestic dissatisfaction with their position.

Thus, many Arab states are driven by political and economic interests incompatible with plunging the region into war.

What, then, would moderate Arab states be willing to do to advance a political solution to the Palestinian problem after the war? The proposed deployment of an Arab peacekeeping force in Gaza appears to be a non-starter.

Humanitarian, economic, and financial assistance to the residents of Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, which would also help reduce Qatar’s influence in Gaza, is feasible albeit a heavy financial undertaking.

If Israel moves toward a two-state solution, it will find a full partner in the moderate Arab states, facilitating Israel’s coveted goal of normalization with Saudi Arabia, which was abandoned due to the war.

The article was published on December 25 on the Jerusalem Post.

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