North Africa, West Asia

Israel, Hamas and the making of the New Arab World

Maged Mandour

The Arab Revolt, which gave so much hope to the Palestinians, has turned out to be a misfortune for the people of Gaza. The Israeli narrative has now found wide acceptance, not only in governments, but also on Arab streets.                  

Maged Mandour
16 August 2014

The latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas has revealed a number of hidden dynamics in the Arab world, which signal increased polarization within the region, and, most interestingly, the end of Israeli isolation, not only at the level of intergovernmental relations.

Interestingly, this latest round of fighting has revealed a deep split in the Arab world, with a number of Arab regimes taking an unabashed position of blaming Hamas for the violence, and explicitly or implicitly supporting Israel. For the first time, the Israeli narrative is the dominant one, increasing the appeal for radical Islamist rhetoric, and opening up the way for even greater violence and rise of insurgencies across the Arab world. The people of Gaza are left to fend for themselves, not only on the practical level, as was previously the case, but also on a rhetorical level. Israel now finds itself in an alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, trying to coopt Hamas; while Hamas is trying to find new allies, such as Turkey and Qatar.

The first major player in need of closer examination is Egypt, which for the first time, has failed to play the role of mediator in this conflict, and has implicitly sided with Israel. Although there is a humanitarian ceasefire in place, it does not meet the Palestinian demands for lifting the blockade, in which Egypt plays an integral part. As such, the current ceasefire is just a political show.

The Egyptian policy of blockading the Gaza strip goes back to the split between Hamas and Fatah that brought Hamas to power in Gaza. This policy of tightening the blockade intensified, and was one of the major rallying points against the Mubarak regime. Egypt’s value to the United States is in its ability to coopt radical movements and act as mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It therefore actively participates in the blockade in an attempt to suppress Hamas. However, Egypt also always tried to keep up some façade of supporting the Palestinians, acting as the “ honest broker” between both sides. This is what is no longer the case.

Even before the coup that removed President Morsi from power, an Egyptian media closely connected with the “deep state” had embarked on a defamation campaign against Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah, accusing them of being behind prison breaks and the attacks on police stations that took place during the early stages of the revolution in 2011. This was coupled with attempts to link the Muslim Brotherhood, even when Morsi was in power, to these groups. Now in 2014, the media is attempting to link Hamas with the terrorist attacks that have recently been occurring in Egypt. Needless to say, all of this is without a shred of evidence.

The goal of the military regime is to kill two birds with one stone, namely, demonizing the Brotherhood as well as building support for its foreign policy. A goal it has so far been able to achieve due to the prevailing paranoia people have regarding the Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas. Thus, the suppression of both movements is an attempt to consolidate President Sisi’s legitimacy as the 'protector' of Egypt against terrorism and extremism.

This is why, for the first time, Egypt has played such a marginal role in the conflict. The regime, striving to maintain its legitimacy at home, was left with no recourse but to continue its policy of blockading the Gaza Strip and suppressing Hamas. The only thing that has come out of Cairo was a ceasefire proposal, quickly dismissed by Hamas, because of its lack of any attempt to address the issue of the blockade. In essence, the Egyptian regime has successfully marginalized itself and preempted any chance of acting as a “mediator”, which ironically could result in a reduction of its value, as an ally, to the United States. As such, we could now be seeing the final act in a gradual decline of Egypt’s role in the Israel/Palestine conflict, which some might argue started with the Camp David accords.

The other player is Saudi Arabia, which, like Egypt, has officially outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood in support of the military regime in Cairo. The Saudis, bastions of conservatism in the Arab World, have conveniently blamed Hamas for the violence in the conflict whilst ignoring the blockade and Israeli aggression. There are also some reports, denied by the Kingdom, that Saudi intelligence officials have participated in planning the war with Mossad. This would not be surprising, if one were to place this policy in its broader domestic and regional context; the Saudis, like all Middle East regimes, were afraid of the Arab revolt reaching the shores of their relatively stable land. The fear was of ideologically potent forces, namely moderate Islamists, who may have been able to offer an alternative to the rule of the Al Saud family, yet one consistent with the social fabric of the traditionally conservative Saudi society. Hence, the suppression of Hamas as well as of the Muslim Brotherhood was paramount.

Therefore, both Egypt and Saudi, have implicitly or explicitly adopted the Israeli narrative of blaming Hamas for the violence. This only serves to provide further impetus for extremist movements like the Islamic State, and Ansar Bait el Maqdis in Egypt. However, it is important to note that this is hardly a drastic or a radical shift in policy. This has been a gradual process that has now reached its apex, where conservative regimes in the Arab World are no longer trying to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause.

On the other hand, there is Syria, a traditional ally to Hamas. After the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution, and the murderous campaign of the Syrian regime, Hamas wisely distanced itself in an attempt to maintain its appeal on the Arab streets, preserving its soft power. However, this has cost Hamas the support of one of its staunchest historical allies, resulting in its further isolation, which in turn has made it more susceptible to the pressure of Arab conservative regimes. However, during its own raging civil war, had Syria wanted to support Hamas, this wouldn’t have been possible either on a material or a moral level. 

Compared to the first war on Gaza, there is much less popular anger and street protests in the capitals of the Arab world. This can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, the almost total collapse of Arab political law and order has pushed people to focus more on domestic rather than foreign issues. Then there is the zero tolerance policy adopted by Arab governments towards political gatherings and demonstrations.

Furthermore, due to the changing political situation, Arab regimes have stopped using the Palestinian cause as a safety valve to release popular anger. In Egypt, for example, the National Democratic Party, the ruling party of the Mubarak regime, sponsored a rally during the first war on Gaza in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood, so that the MB could let off some steam.

Secondly, and most importantly, there is a general backlash against moderate Islamist movements, with connections being made between domestic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas  which allege that they are part of an international organization. This connection has little factual support. The notion that supporting Hamas is one and the same as supporting a local Islamist group is ludicrous, to say the least.

Thus, the Arab Revolt, which gave so much hope to the Palestinians, has turned out to be a misfortune for the people of Gaza. The Israeli narrative has now found wide acceptance, not only in governments, but also on Arab streets. The pariah is no longer Israel; it is now Hamas and the wider Palestinian resistance. Israel has successfully truncated the nature of the struggle from an Arab-Israeli struggle to a Palestinian-Israeli struggle, weakening the Palestinians even further and masking the nature of the struggle. It has now become a struggle for land, rather than a wider Arab struggle against the neo-colonial construct which is the Arab world.                   

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