Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Ramallah, Cairo, Amman and Beirut for a second consecutive Friday, shouting their rage at Israel’s siege of Gaza – and demanding Arab governments do something about it.
That fury is already reshaping the politics of the broader Middle East and beyond, with violence surging to unprecedented levels in and around Gaza but also spilling over into the Israeli-occupied West Bank and across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. On Thursday, missiles fired from Yemen toward Israel by Houthi rebels – an Iranian-backed force, like Hamas and Hezbollah – provided yet another reminder of the potential for a region-wide conflagration, even though they were intercepted by the U.S. Navy. Other rockets and drones have hit U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq.
U.S. President Joe Biden hinted at how he saw the conflict when he said U.S. intelligence suggested a deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital on Wednesday had been the fault of Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, which he referred to as “the other team.” In a Thursday speech, he said the wars in Gaza and Ukraine were part of a wider struggle between democracy and dictatorship, linking the two conflicts via Iran, which provides military support to both Hamas and Russia.
It’s all a reminder of how the careful progress in the Middle East, which has scarcely seen peace over the past seven decades, can unwind in a day.
Before Hamas’s invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, hopes were on the rise in some quarters that a tripartite pact between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel would soon be signed. The deal would have seen Riyadh, which portrays itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, finally recognize Israel some 75 years after the Jewish state declared independence.
In exchange, the U.S. was supposed to enter a defence pact with Saudi Arabia, effectively vowing to protect it from neighbouring Iran, while Israel was supposed to make unspecified concessions to the Palestinians. Heading into an election year, U.S. President Joe Biden would have a foreign policy triumph exceeding the Abraham Accords, which saw his predecessor, Donald Trump, secure the recognition of Israel from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, while offering nothing to the Palestinians.
Most in the region believe the tripartite pact is effectively dead, for now, even as the Biden administration continues to promote it. Pro-Palestinian sympathies across the Arab world are simply too strong for even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ignore.
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of hopes for a Saudi recognition deal in the past tense, saying that “destroying that move” was one of the reasons Hamas launched the attacks his government says killed more than 1,400 Israelis.
Israel’s counterattack – which has included a siege of the densely populated Gaza Strip, plus 14 days of non-stop air strikes – has left more than 4,000 people dead, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is run by Hamas.
“The Saudi deal was positive, because it was going to force Netanyahu to do something with the Palestinians,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster who used to advise Mr. Netanyahu. “Now there are seismic shifts in the region. No one’s doing anything now.”
There are new risks for Arab rulers. The fury in Ramallah this week wasn’t directed solely at Israel, but also at the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, which runs the West Bank and is perceived as standing idly by while Gazans suffer.
Chants of “With our blood and our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Gaza!” were followed by “The people want the fall of the regime!”
The latter motto was resurrected from the outbreak of the Arab Spring of a dozen years ago, when pro-democracy protests swept across the region, toppling rulers in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and sparking the civil wars in Syria and Yemen that continue to this day.
“I think that people are angry right now with the PA – they have been for a long time. It’s not just with Abu Mazen, but with the PA,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former adviser to Mr. Abbas, the 87-year-old technocrat who is widely known by his nickname Abu Mazen. Ms. Buttu said it was particularly hard to see the PA’s lightly armed police – which co-operate with Israel on security matters – standing aside amid the escalating violence in the West Bank, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, making this one of the deadliest periods since the last intifada.
“Abu Mazen has to decide whether he is the representative of the Palestinian people or if he’s the representative of the Palestinian Authority,” she said.
Representing the Palestinian people, she said, would mean taking a more forceful stand against the Israeli siege of Gaza and instructing the PA’s police force to defend Palestinians.
The possibility that anger over the bloodshed in Gaza could be converted into new anti-government protests is also real in Egypt. When Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled in 2011, the subsequent election saw Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has political links to Hamas, swept to power.
Mr. Morsi was himself ousted in a 2013 coup that brought military-backed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to office. Mr. al-Sisi’s government appeared to be trying to co-opt pro-Palestinian sentiment by organizing demonstrations in support of Gaza in 27 cities Friday – the first officially sanctioned protests allowed in Egypt since he came to power.
Mr. al-Sisi will also host a hastily arranged “peace summit” in Cairo on Saturday that will be attended by Mr. Abbas and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Progress seems unlikely, however, with no representatives from Israel, Hamas, Iran or the United States in attendance.
By positioning himself as a peacemaker – while at the same time working to prevent a spillover into Egypt – “Sisi has found himself under pressure from all sides,” Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy wrote on Substack. Mr. al-Sisi, he added, also fears the “domino effect” of pro-Palestinian demonstrations melding with popular discontent over Egypt’s severe cost-of-living crisis. “Sisi’s popularity has reached its lowest point,” Mr. el-Hamalawy wrote. “The situation in Palestine could serve as one catalyst, as it did in the previous decades.”
At Friday’s demonstration in Cairo, pro-Palestinian chants mixed with cries of “Bread! Freedom! Social justice!” – another slogan from the Arab Spring.
The situation is also delicate in Jordan, where protesters this week tried to light the Israeli embassy on fire. Various estimates suggest Palestinian refugees and their descendants make up between a quarter and a half of Jordan’s population of 10 million. Jordanian police blocked all roads to the West Bank and Israel on Friday, as small groups of protesters headed toward the border chanting pro-Hamas slogans.
Iran, of course, lingers in the background, providing support to not only Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza but also to the more formidable Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, as well as the Houthis in Yemen and the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“The situation is working in Iran’s favour. Taking the war to its regional arch enemy, Israel, and winning the hearts and souls of the people in the Middle East,” said Abdullah Baabood, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “However, if the conflict widens, its allies will also pay a price, and I don’t believe a wider conflict is going to be in its best interest.”
As Iran and its allies teeter toward a broader confrontation with Israel – and possibly the U.S. – Tehran has tightened its ties with Moscow and Beijing. China backed a Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution this week that called for a humanitarian ceasefire, the release of all hostages and the evacuation of civilians from the war zone. The resolution was vetoed by the U.S., Britain and France because it did not condemn Hamas.
“It does seem like Biden’s geopolitical teams are being lined up,” said Mr. Barak, the Israeli pollster. “It’s us, the U.S., all of Europe and Saudi Arabia versus Iran with China and Russia.”
Leaving the rest of the region caught in the perilous middle.
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