Arab states and the Gaza war

Summary: questions are being asked about why the leaders of powerful Arab states have been reluctant to use their considerable diplomatic and economic clout to end the slaughter in Gaza and secure the rights of Palestinians to a free and independent country.

When this Gaza war ends there will be a reckoning. For Benjamin Netanyahu on his responsibility for the catastrophic security failure that allowed the 7 October Hamas attack. For Israel’s friends and allies, the most prominent of which is America, their emphatic support for a genocidal war that has thus far killed nearly 30000 civilians and wounded tens of thousands more. For the Global North the glaring hypocrisy that saw Putin’s war crimes against the Ukrainian people decried whilst ignoring and indeed supporting Israel’s crimes against the civilian population of Gaza. For Hamas the decision to attack by deliberately targeting civilians, an action that served to empower Netanyahu and enable the IDF’s brutal response.

One other reckoning needs consideration and that is the response of the Arab states to the war. With the exception of Qatar and occasional outbursts from heads of state such as Tunisia’s Kais Saied the leaders of these states have shown themselves remarkably quiescent about the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. Their position is at odds with the vast majority of their citizens who passionately support the Palestinian cause (but are not allowed to vocally express that support or take to the streets to back their  fellow Arabs.)

Those citizens are, as Tharwa Boulifi noted in our 2 February newsletter, questioning why it took an African country to bring Israel to the ICJ on the charge of genocide. As Tharwa pointed out, South Africa’s decision “was seen by the people of the Middle East and North Africa  as a courageous and necessary step even as they wondered why such an action had come, not from their governments, but from a non-Arab state.”

Qatar has from the very early days of the war consistently called for a ceasefire. It is worth recalling the language used by Qatar’s UN envoy on 25 October, a little more than two weeks after the conflict began. Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-Thani in her statement stressed that

it is unacceptable for the current conflict to be used as a pretext for Israel’s policy of collective punishment against the brotherly Palestinian people, including forced displacement and compelling civilians to displace or seek refuge in neighboring countries, which constitutes a flagrant violation of international laws.

The expansion of Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip to include civilian facilities such as hospitals, schools, and residential areas is a dangerous escalation that threatens the region’s security and stability, and constitutes a serious violation of international law and relevant Security Council resolutions.

Qatar has repeatedly warned in recent months about the consequences of the escalating policies adopted by the Israeli government, including …repeated incursions into the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque, the continuation of settlement policies, land annexation, demolition of Palestinian properties, and arbitrary measures against Palestinian prisoners.

Qatar’s Prime Minister, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, emphasising the humanitarian crisis in Rafah [photo credit: Qatar Gov]
Qatar’s Prime Minister, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, emphasising the humanitarian crisis in Rafah [photo credit: Qatar MoFA]
The IDF’s destruction of Gaza’s hospitals, schools and residential areas is nearly complete, the collective punishment of civilians in the Strip remains blatantly on display and Netanyahu continues to deride and dismiss Qatar’s notable efforts to dialogue a pathway to either a temporary or a lasting ceasefire. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem attacks on Palestinians have escalated dramatically since the beginning of the war, with the IDF and settler vigilantes armed by the National Security Minister killing more than 300 Palestinians. Thousands have been jailed, homes destroyed and communities forcibly removed. Still the Qataris continue their efforts, presiding over talks in Paris and Cairo while steadfastly calling for an end to the fighting.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference over the week-end the Qatari PM and foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani noted the difficulties the ongoing talks are facing while diplomatically not pointing a finger directly at Netanyahu. He did however address the hypocrisy: “We are at a crossroads now and it is very critical that we stand for a rule-based international order, that everyone is talking about here in Munich and at other events, and we don’t differentiate depending on who are the people who commit these acts or who are being the victims of these acts.”

Contrast that with the actions of the UAE who have chosen to maintain the diplomatic ties with Israel that came about as a result of the Abraham Accords. While the Emiratis have called for a ceasefire they have done so in muted language preferring to aim most of their disquiet and frustration at the Biden administration’s handling of the war rather than risk their security and economic ties with the Israelis. Similarly the Bahrainis have followed in the footsteps of the UAE, retaining their ambassador’s presence in Tel Aviv whilst policing the internet and preventing protests in support of Palestine.

Jordan did recall its ambassador in November but Egypt though it reportedly weighed up such a move in January has not done so nor, at least publicly, threatened to. Given the country’s dire economic situation and the necessity to do business with Israel particularly as regards East Med gas, President Sisi – while standing firm on not allowing the Israelis to relocate the Gaza population to North Sinai – is anxious to avoid alienating Netanyahu.

Not so President Erdoğan of Türkiye. On 20 September he had shaken hands with the Israeli PM at the UN in New York with the two speaking about cooperation on “energy, technology, innovation, artificial intelligence as well as cyber security.” Barely a month later Erdogan described Hamas as “a liberation group, ‘mujahideen’ waging a battle to protect its lands and people.” In November the Turkish ambassador was recalled with Erdoğan stating that Netanyahu was “no longer a man we can talk to.” By the end of the month the Turkish president declared his Israeli counterpart “the butcher of Gaza.”

For their part, the Saudis have reiterated their call for ceasefire and a pathway to a two-state solution but have done little else on the diplomatic front, while privately remaining keen to normalise with Israel once the fighting has ended (see our 9 February newsletter.)

The only robust military response has come from Hezbollah and the Huthis with the latter continuing to target shipping heading to Israel as well as vessels belonging to the US and the UK, most recently on Tuesday when a UK-registered cargo ship was hit in the Bab al-Mandab. That came despite the American and British airstrikes that were supposed to halt the Huthi attacks.

That non-state actors are taking military action in support of the Palestinian cause underscores the broader failure of Arab states, with the notable exception of Qatar, to bring meaningful diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on Israel to end the conflict.

The winner, if there can be any winner in such an appalling war, remains Iran who back Hamas, Hezbollah and the Huthis and who seek to further destabilise the region in pursuit of their strategic agenda to become the dominant regional power.

With their economic clout and a growing global diplomatic presence Saudi Arabia and the UAE could be leaders in challenging Netanyahu and securing a just resolution for Palestine and the Palestinians. Such a resolution would deliver a rebuff to Iran and give those states what they most desire: a region that is secure and stable. And it would answer the question posed in Munich by the Qatari prime minister: “How will we face our citizens when we show them we couldn’t help the defenceless Palestinians in Gaza?”

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