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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Across the Mideast, a surge of support for Palestinians as war erupts in Gaza

An injured woman with her child after an Israeli airstrike near their house in the central Gaza Strip on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023.

By Vivian Nereim

When the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco announced that they were establishing relations with Israel in 2020, Emirati officials said the deals were symbols of peace and tolerance, while then-President Donald Trump declared “the dawn of a new Middle East.”

Those words rang hollow to many in the region, though. Even in the countries that signed the deals, branded the Abraham Accords, support for the Palestinians — and enmity toward Israel over its decadeslong occupation of their land — remained strong, particularly as Israel’s government expanded settlements in the Palestinian West Bank after the agreements.

On Saturday, when Palestinian gunmen from the blockaded territory of Gaza surged into Israel, carrying out the boldest attack in the country in decades, it set off an outpouring of support for the Palestinians across the region. In some quarters, there were celebrations — even as hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were killed and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel threatened a “long and difficult war” ahead.

“This is the first time that we rejoice in this way for our Palestinian brothers,” said Abdul Majeed Abdullah Hassan, 70, who joined a rally with hundreds of people in the island kingdom of Bahrain. In the context of the Israeli occupation and blockade, the Hamas operation “warmed our hearts,” he said, calling his government’s deal to recognize Israel “shameful.”

Demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians took place across the region, including in Bahrain, Morocco, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia and Kuwait. In Lebanon, Hashem Safieddine, head of the executive council for the Iran-backed militia Hezbollah, delivered a fiery speech lauding “the era of armed resistance.” And in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria, a police officer opened fire on Israeli tourists, killing two Israelis and an Egyptian.

The ripples spreading from Gaza underscored what many officials, scholars and citizens in the region have been saying for years: The Palestinian cause is still a deeply felt rallying cry that shapes the contours of the Middle East, and Israel’s position in the region will remain unstable as long as its conflict with the Palestinians continues.

Diplomatic “normalization” agreements between Israel and Arab governments — even with the powerhouse of Saudi Arabia, where U.S. officials have been pushing recently for normalization — will do little to change that, many regional analysts say.

“The current war is a stark reminder that lasting peace and prosperity in the region is only possible after resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Bader Al-Saif, a professor at Kuwait University. “No amount of heavy lifting or acrobatics in dealing with Israel on other files can sidestep or erase this simple fact.”

Many Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, have long insisted that the price of recognizing Israel must be the creation of a Palestinian state. But over the past decade, that calculus has shifted, as authoritarian leaders weigh negative public opinion toward a relationship with Israel against the economic and security benefits it could offer — and what they might be able to get from the United States in return.

The Biden administration has been pressing for a deal that would establish ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia in exchange for significant concessions to the kingdom. Saudi officials have demanded American security assurances and support for a civilian nuclear program.

Last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia made his first public reference to the negotiations, saying in a Fox News interview that the talks felt “real” for the first time. And in early October, the kingdom’s newspapers — which operate under limited press freedom — began publishing a spate of columns that were subtly or openly supportive of normalization.

The eruption of violence Saturday presented a significant challenge to those efforts.

It also made comments by King Abdullah II of Jordan at a conference in New York last month appear prescient: “This belief by some in the region that you can parachute over Palestine — deal with the Arabs and work your way back — that does not work,” he said.

Indeed, some Arab officials and scholars complain that their warnings about normalization deals that do not sincerely address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have fallen on deaf ears.

Watching the events in Gaza feels like hearing Arabs say “we told you so” to the American president, Khalid al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi academic, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Ignoring what’s right in finding a just solution to the Palestinian cause creates a trap for the region and threatens peace,” he said.

U.S. officials say that normalization is a key step toward a more integrated Middle East, with positive implications for regional security and American defense interests.

“There are really two paths before the region,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “There’s the path of greater integration, greater stability, including, critically, making sure that Israelis and Palestinians resolve their differences, or there’s the path of terror that Hamas is engaged on, that has not improved the lives of a single person.”

He added: “We’ve said from day one that even as we’re working toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that can’t be a substitute for resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians.”

But many in the region say that normalization feels like a betrayal — a triumph of government and business elites over the will of their people.

The Palestinian cause “is something we grew up on as children, and it became a compass to show what is right and just,” said Reem Maraj, 34, who participated in a symposium Saturday in Bahrain that discussed the outcome of the Abraham Accords, three years later.

“If I had the choice, I would have erased this agreement from the history of my country,” she said.

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