Israel’s war on Gaza could spark protests that shape entire region

While media focus is on pro-Palestine protests in the US, anger in North Africa and Western Asia could boil over

By Paul Rogers. Published 5-8-2024 by openDemocracy

Iraqi cleric Sadr mobilizes thousands at Baghdad pro-Palestinian rally. Screenshot: YouTube

Though many analysts feared an uncontrolled military escalation between Israel and Iran last month, this seems to have been avoided for now at least. Many states across the world are, however, witnessing a political escalation – not least those in North Africa and West Asia, which are often overlooked in conversations about protest.

The United States is the most obvious example of state-level controversy. Pro-Palestine protests and occupations are taking place at university campuses across the country – many of which have been met by violent police-led actions – as people take issue with Joe Biden’s enabling Israel in its horrific seven-month assault on Gaza.

If unresolved by late summer, the likely beneficiary of these anti-Israel, anti-Biden protests will be Donald Trump. Should he be elected as president, Trump would rely on the support of Israel-supporting evangelical Christians and Christian Zionists – which could lead him to embolden the current or future Israeli government to take far greater control of Gaza and possibly also the occupied West Bank.

Widespread anger over the government’s support for Israel appears to also be having a political impact in the UK. There have been several pro-Palestine protests of well over a hundred thousand people over the past seven months, exacerbated by British arms sales and other military links to Israel, and this discontent appears to have reared its head at the ballot box during the local elections in England and Wales last week

Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party had an awful night, losing 474 councillors. But Keir Starmer’s Labour Party failed to win the majority of these, gaining only 186. The rest were scooped up by the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Independents – including many left-wingers who distanced themselves from Labour in part due to Starmer’s failure to meaningfully criticise Israel or call for an end to the war on Gaza.

It seems Labour’s massive lead in the opinion polls is a reflection of the Conservatives’ problems, rather than the party’s popularity. The voting pattern seen last week will certainly extend in some manner to the General Election later this year, which will offer little voting choice and much dissatisfaction for millions of progressive voters.

But while much media attention has been given to the protests and voting habits on either side of the Atlantic, what is happening across the Arab world has been largely overlooked.

Israel has for decades played a thoroughly useful role for autocratic regimes seeking to maintain control. Arab leaders have been able to encourage the public to direct their anger at the Zionist treatment of the Palestinians, thereby reducing the risk of protests directed at themselves.

That broke down with the 2011 Arab Spring, when a region-wide movement of people turned out to protest against their leaders. Some regimes, including Egypt and especially Syria, attempted to maintain control through brute force, while others used a mixture of limited concession and repression. Others, such as Jordan and Morocco, were rather more concessionary at least in the short term, and one, Tunisia, saw a change of power with the end of the Ben Ali autocracy after its 23 years of control.

After the violence of the Hamas attack on 7 October last year, public reaction across Arab states was muted, but that changed rapidly as the sheer ferocity of the Israeli assault on Gaza and the Palestinians emerged.

This was a tricky time for autocratic leaders. It was impossible to control public anger given the intensity of the killing of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of homes and public buildings in Gaza. Demonstrations were allowed, including some organised by the regimes themselves in the early weeks.

That period is now long gone, but the hour-by-hour media coverage of the war’s impact on Palestinians means public anger cannot be assuaged. Many regimes across the region are now taking a tougher line as they fear risks to their own survival.

In Egypt and Morocco – where protesters have been critical of their countries’ increasingly close relations with Israel in recent years – authorities have clamped down on demonstrations and made arrests. In Jordan, meanwhile, 1,500 protesters have been arrested at protests outside the Israeli embassy since 7 October, according to Amnesty International.

Some regimes are conscious of the long-term link between the plight of Palestinians and the lack of rights in their own countries. As a report in The New York Times put it:

“For decades, Arab activists have linked the struggle for justice for the Palestinians — a cause that unites Arabs of different political persuasions from Marrakesh to Baghdad — to the struggle for greater rights and freedoms at home. For them, Israel was an avatar of the authoritarian and colonialist forces that had thwarted their own societies’ growth.”

For now, Arab regimes are retaining control – but this could change quickly. Israel this week launched an assault on Rafah, a city in southern Gaza that is sheltering 1.4 million Palestinians. And the bombardment of Rafah – which Israel said would be a ‘safe zone’ when it ordered evacuations from northern Gaza last year – came as Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s offer of a ceasefire.

There is another factor often overlooked in the West. Israel’s assault on Gaza followed a series of grievous failures by the Israeli Defence Force, border police and intelligence agencies on 7 October – which showed beyond doubt that Israel’s much-vaunted regional security supremacy is simply not what it seems. This feeling is only increasing as it is proving impossible for Israel to destroy Hamas. Many Arab activists are now thinking that if Israel can fail, why shouldn’t their own elites?

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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