The Death of the Palestinian Cause Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

A decade after the Arab Spring, it’s become fashionable to suggest that Palestinian suffering was no longer a priority in the Arab world

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The Death of the Palestinian Cause Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the first United Arab Emirates ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Mahmoud Al Khaja on March 2, 2021 in Jerusalem/Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

As a kid growing up in Dubai, every Wednesday my father bought me a copy of Majid, a children’s magazine from the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned media agency that also published Al-Ittihad, the country’s flagship Arabic daily. Within the magazine’s pages, which included Fodooli (the Arabic version of Where’s Waldo), a series about three police officers who solved various crimes, and other cartoons and culture-lite content, a permanent fixture of the publication was a seemingly out-of-place feature called, “And One of Her People Bore Witness.”

This line is an excerpt of a Quranic verse, and the page was dedicated to highlighting news reports from Israeli media outlets like Haaretz, Maariv, and Yedioth Ahronoth that covered abuses against the Palestinians. These included reports on house demolitions, dispossession by settlers, and myriad other injustices that Palestinians faced every day.

My formative political years as a teenager and in early college were not only defined by witnessing these abuses on TV but also by existing in a milieu that named them for what they were and did not equivocate about them by calling them something else. The violence perpetrated by the Israeli military during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, the destruction of Lebanon in 2006, Operation Cast Lead, the 2008 attack on Gaza, the systematic dispossession of the Palestinians, the killing of Muhammad al-Durra — these were not sanitized or equivocated as a form of self-defense. The rage was impotent, for sure, but the victims were not blamed for their plight. We still had shame.

For the last 10 years, Western (and even Arab) pundits have repeatedly questioned the place of Palestine in the pan-Arab psyche. They surmised that the Arab Spring had refocused Arab minds on their problems at home. They assumed that battling tyrannical regimes and their security apparatuses, reforming corrupt polities and decrepit health care and education systems, combating terrorism and religious extremism, whittling back the power of the military, and overcoming economic challenges like corruption and unemployment would take precedence over an unsolved and apparently unsolvable cause.

These are enormous challenges, of course, but sympathizing with a cause célèbre that has endured for generations is not mutually exclusive from the task of undertaking reforms at home, particularly since the region’s Western-backed authoritarians have solidified their grip on power after being taken by surprise in the initial years of the Arab Spring. At any rate, reforming the Arab world’s political systems and the security and patronage networks that keep them in power and allow them to dominate their populations appears to be just as arduous a task as resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The apathy does not seem to extend to Palestine whenever violence flares up, whenever the abject sense of defeat is crystallized in brute form in the shape of dead Palestinian children, demolished residential buildings, and airstrikes by the Israel Defense Forces. These are more visible markers of suffering, clearer objects of rage, than the invisible political detainees in our dungeons, the self-censored social media post, the dawn raid on a journalist’s home.

The difference now is not that Arab populaces have abandoned Palestine. Western and regional observers say the muted outrage over affronts like American support for the annexation of the Golan Heights or recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or even the Abraham Accords and the subsequent sycophantic embrace of Israel in the Gulf is an indicator of Arab public opinion, that it signals a loss of interest in the cause.

It is not. Arabs are of course not of a single mind on any particular issue, nor is it possible to gauge public opinion under tyrannical regimes. But it is indicative of the fact that these authoritarians no longer see the pan-Arab Palestinian cause and supporting it as vital to their survival. They have discovered that inward-looking, nationalistic pride is the key to enduring in perpetuity. It is the final step in the dismantling of pan-Arabism as a political force, one that will shape the region’s fortunes and its states’ alliances in the years and decades to come.

Nowhere is this shift in attitude more abjectly transparent than in the Gulf states’ media outlets, which hew closely to the state line and even go beyond it in an attempt to out-hawk official policy, which by comparison appears reasonable and measured. Gone are the days of lending even a sympathetic nod to the Palestinian victims of settler colonialism, the days of Majid’s sanitized Israeli media monitoring. Those have been replaced with a fascinating shift in terminology and victim blaming that plays out live and highlights the tortured position they find themselves in. Much of it now echoes right- and left-wing American critiques of the situation. It’s complicated, they say.

In a recent Facebook news post flagged by satirical Arabic website Al-Hudood, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya initially reported on “confrontations inside Al-Aqsa’s courtyards after an incursion by occupation forces.” An updated post four minutes later changed that breaking news alert to: “Confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli forces inside Al-Aqsa’s courtyards.”

A panoply of columns by writers for prominent Gulf news outlets goes further. In the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, in a column on May 16, Saudi writer Abdullah al-Otaibi squarely laid the blame for the recent violence on Hamas’ rockets, rather than the settler evictions, attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel, and state-backed violence that preceded this round of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks. On Tuesday, the newspaper highlighted the Israeli military’s claims that it is continuing to bomb Hamas tunnels and homes of its leadership, and the UAE’s Al Bayan published Israeli stats highlighting the number of rockets fired from Gaza toward Israel.

An article in Al Arabiya, quoting the outlet’s correspondent, noted that all of Israel’s airstrikes targeted Hamas headquarters, empty homes of the group’s leaders, military targets, and other locations empty of civilians, despite clear and well-documented evidence of civilian casualties.

All this is an obvious and transparent outgrowth of the Gulf states’ normalization deals with Israel, though it is curious to me why they feel the need to amplify Israel’s narrative of the conflict if they did not think public opinion was already on the side of normalization. The brazen embrace and justification of Israel’s policies makes for a fascinating contrast with other countries that have had diplomatic relations with Israel for a lot longer. Jordan violently suppressed demonstrators protesting the attacks on Gaza, who apparently did not receive the memo that 27 years should have been enough time to accept Israel’s position on the conflict. In Egypt, despite its testy relationship with Hamas and its participation in the blockade of Gaza, it is still political and social suicide to publicly embrace normalization as a concept.

The Abraham Accords were a watershed moment. It was disorienting to see Arab officials joyfully and proudly standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, coming on the heels of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem embassy moves by the Trump administration. There was great presumption and folly in the grandiose naming of a convenient political deal between unelected monarchs and a premier accused of bribery and corruption, which was brokered by an American president who paid hush money to a porn star, after the patriarch of the prophets of Israel and Islam.

Yet there was honesty, too, in that embrace, if you ignored the vapid argument that unconditional normalization would do what war, protest, and insurgency could not:convince Israel to treat the Palestinians like equal human beings. The UAE, which sees itself increasingly as a scientific and technological as well as military power, would gain a trade and technological partner and ally against Iran amid American wavering and retreat. Morocco would gain recognition of its claim over the Western Sahara. Sudan’s sanctions would be lifted. All of these grounded and potentially monumental benefits were no longer outweighed by the need to keep up a façade of sympathy for a cause that they never really tried to resolve or fight for.

Of course, few Arab leaders have ever actually done anything for the Palestinians beyond rhetorical support for the cause, but they were happy to use the prospect of Palestine to keep their populations in check. The late former President Hafez al-Assad imposed a multi-decade state of emergency and mobilization to justify his tyrannical hold over Syria while awaiting the mother of all battles with the enemy, all without firing a single shot across the border since 1973. The leader of the beating heart of Arabism intervened in Lebanon’s civil war and had no qualms massacring pan-Arab nationalists and their Palestinian allies, or to recruit his Amal militia allies to starve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. His son and successor, President Bashar al-Assad, negotiated with Israel via intermediaries, ready to sell out his allies in Iran and Hezbollah, even as he declared his fealty to the resistance.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has spent much of the last 10 years focused on starving Syrian civilians rather than liberating Jerusalem. The Gulf states have long had backchannels and secret dealings with the Israelis and developed a penchant for Israeli digital surveillance tools. Egypt needed Israel to destroy extremist militants in Sinai. And Morocco, Oman, and Qatar all had different levels of diplomatic ties. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, expelled the Israeli ambassador every time he needed to shore up his pan-Islamic credentials, a measure vastly less costly than trying to do anything about China’s Uyghurs.

it shows they no longer need it to hold on to power when they have a much more potent force at their disposal — nationalism

This retreat is not reflective of authoritarians who are in tune with the preferences of their populations. We don’t know broadly whether a majority of Arabs care about Palestine or not, though every indicator points to the fact that they still do. Rather, it shows they no longer need it to hold on to power when they have a much more potent force at their disposal — nationalism.

This trend is evident in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular, though the latter has yet to formalize its secretive ties to Israel through a public deal like the former. Nevertheless, Riyadh’s media outlets have taken on a prominent role in expressing public sympathy for Israel and its positions. Both countries are also seeking normalization with the Assad regime, after 10 years of the slaughter al-Assad perpetrated in Syria.

In Saudi Arabia, a monumental shift is underway to neuter the power of the clerical establishment in favor of a more nationalistic vision of progress that gives primacy to Saudi identity. According to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, in a recent interview, this identity derives from religious heritage but also from cultural and historic traditions. MBS has defanged the hated Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, introduced social reforms that dismantle some of the restrictions on women, detained numerous clerics who criticized his policies, both foreign and domestic, and has been elevated by his surrogates into an almost messianic figure sent to renew the faith and empower Saudi identity through KPI-infused economic progress initiatives like Vision 2030. He has also, of course, arrested those who sought to pursue activism and reform and those who criticized the pace and manner of his revolution.

The UAE has taken a different approach, but one with the same end goal. No longer content to be seen as simply an oasis of trade and commerce in a volatile region, it has intervened militarily and assertively in wars it deemed within its national interest. But the image it sells at home and abroad is as a scientific and technological powerhouse that has exceeded the decrepit dinosaurs who have ruled neighboring Arab countries into the ground. That is why the goal it achieved of sending an unmanned probe to Mars before the nation’s golden jubilee was essential. The state’s social contract with its populace is no longer the cliched rentier state of decades past, where oil revenues massage the consent of a quiescent populace. Rather, it is one where nationalist pride is intermingled with the quality of life and performance metrics of a technocratic capitalist state, albeit one where the reins are held by only a handful of families. There is no space here in this efficiency-driven model for the distracting sagas of yesteryear and ancient conflicts.

An entire generation of young Arabs has now lived through 10 years with the Arab Spring as their formative political milieu, a traumatic experience for many who endured revolution, civil war, and proxy conflicts. Those who escaped the cycle of revolution and counterrevolution saw the outcomes in neighboring countries as a cautionary tale.

But the outcome of such trauma is not simply to turn inwards. It is also a deeper awareness of the various forms and shapes of injustice, an attunement to the suffering of others also fighting for a just cause. The sycophants and acolytes of Arab governments would not have had to make such an effort to undermine the facts on the ground if that was not the case.

It will take more than choreographed propaganda tours to make young Arabs forget Majid, Muhammad al-Durra, and decades of injustice, less so with social media ensuring once again what we all know and with all the influencers on those channels speaking out about the cause. They will pursue their visions of nation states, ones unanchored from the veneer of Arab unity that they projected for expediency but never believed in. Perhaps in time, they will achieve their goals, and people will forget. But for now, the death of the Palestinian cause has been greatly exaggerated.

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