(May 19, 2021 / JNS) Another round of violence has erupted in Gaza, and global reactions have run the gamut from peaceful protest to violence, with anti-Semitism up 250 percent in the United Kingdom. Many figures in Western institutions and the media have made problematic anti-Israeli comments, while some official Western government statements maintain their support for Israel.
In the Arab world, the story is different. Given the major geopolitical change that the Abraham Accords brought about last year, Israelis are watching for the reactions of their new Gulf allies. Because the conflict in Gaza is part of a larger struggle between an Arab Sunni block—commonly referred to as the “moderate” block—and the Iranian Axis and the Muslim Brotherhood, many Arab countries find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.
Of all Arab countries, the reactions of the United Arab Emirates were the most impressive. Last week, UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan expressed concern about the ongoing violence, called on all parties to de-escalate and expressed condolences to all the victims. The statement sounded more like that of a European country than an Arab one, breaking the Arab habit of singling out Israel and expressing full support for the Palestinian cause. Moreover, the UAE reportedly warned Hamas that its actions are endangering Emirati plans for infrastructure development in Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Emirati and Saudi press were the calmest while reporting on the issue, reserving their first pages for the regular news, like princely arrivals and departures. Prominent Emirati and Saudi social-media activists were largely split between those who wished to blame Hamas and those who wished to blame Israel. Religious pages and accounts continued to spread anti-Semitism and celebrate the Palestinian cause as the cause of Islam.
What is likely to ease the pressure on the Gulf and Saudi Arabia is that Hamas is an ally of the Iranian Axis, the primary security threat for residents of the Gulf. The attempt of pro-Iranian media to come out as the first supporters of the Palestinian cause and portray Gulf rulers, who recently normalized relations with Israel, as traitors allow for Gulf media outlets to comfortably push back against such a narrative using the patriotic card.
In contrast, Gaza remains a nuisance and a source of unwanted trouble for Egyptians. This is especially true given that Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood—Egypt’s primary nemesis—are rallying behind the cause. Unlike during “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014, in which Egypt came strongly against the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas while it was domestically engaged in a battle against the local Muslim Brotherhood, official Egyptian statements this time resumed blaming Israel and proceeded to voice support for those in Gaza. While this doesn’t indicate a change in Egyptian policy that closely cooperates with Israel on matters of security and continues to impose severe restrictions on Hamas activities, it likely signals Egypt’s wish to restore calm to its borders. Egypt is the only Arab country bordering Gaza and doesn’t wish for a prolonged military operation to impact its efforts in fighting terrorism in the Sinai or to endanger Egyptian stability.
However, Egyptian media and social-media users remain the source of a significant wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiments. Many mid- and low-level Egyptian officials called Israel “the Zionist entity,” and last Friday’s prayer sermon at Egypt’s largest mosque, Al-Azhar, was unusually inflammatory bringing back memories of the Second Intifada. This is likely a cause of worry for the Egyptian regime, given its eight-year-long long battle against the Sunni Islamist camp.
As for the usual suspects, Al Jazeera held its ground as the bastion of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. Both on satellite and online, it serves as an outlet for Hamas leaders and sympathizers, inciting Arab audiences against Israel and against “Arab inaction.” It bemoans the lack of major pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Arab capitals and urges watchers to blame their leaders for the Palestinian tragedy.
Qatar hosted an unprecedented major rally led by Ismail Haniyeh, a senior political leader of Hamas, in which he gave an inflammatory speech. The rally took place at the same time as Qatar is trying to act as the chief mediator between Israel and Hamas, undercutting the traditional Egyptian role and seeking greater influence in the region.
As Arab affairs look more complicated than ever, so does the Arab position on Gaza and Israel. A spike in violence endangers recent anti-Islamist efforts by many Arab governments, yet they expose the emergence of different opinions. Arab media is still saturated with anti-Semitism and hatred towards Israel, promising Jews annihilation and death; yet for the first time, there are new voices, both official and non-official, taking a strong anti-Hamas position. This is still a minority opinion, yet the split might offer Arab governments some leverage given their confrontations with the two Islamist forces: the Iranian Axis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Public opinion might be increasingly important in what one could call a proxy conflict in Gaza.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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