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War on Gaza: Why Arab states are failing the Palestinian people

After decades of a successful US-Israeli drive to marginalise the Palestinian cause, regional leaders have fallen in line - but Arab peoples have not
A Palestinian man sits amid the rubble of the family's house, which was destroyed in a deadly Israeli strike, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on 9 January 2024 (Reuters)

Before the question of Palestine became a central global ethical concern for our contemporary world, it was an ethical core of modern Arab identity. The belated European Zionist colonisation of Palestine was a flagrant injustice that unified Arabs from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond.

It cut across regional, class, sectarian and religious divisions. For that same reason, the question of Palestine has also exposed a gulf in the Arab world between western-dependent rulers and their populations yearning for meaningful self-determination and solidarity.

This chasm has increased massively during the current Israeli onslaught against Gaza, which many consider to be a genocide.

Although the Anglo-French partition of the defeated Ottoman Empire in 1920 created several nominally independent Arab states, or what British imperial leaders described as an "Arab facade" to cover up the reality of British imperial rule, neither Britain nor its Arab rulers - referenced by historian Arnold Toynbee as the "Arab henchmen" of British colonialism - were able to avert growing hostility towards colonial Zionism in Palestine.

Anti-Zionist sentiment across the Arab and Islamic worlds crystallised after the 1929 Buraq uprising and the 1936 Arab revolt, both in Palestine. 

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Because of the manifest injustice of colonial Zionism in Palestine - which was predicated on privileging European Zionist aspirations to create a Jewish state, in fundamental disregard of the self-determination of the majority, who were native Palestinians - representatives of six Arab states made impassioned pleas against the proposed western partition of Palestine at the newly formed United Nations in 1947.

Along with a handful of other nations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq objected vociferously to the obvious injustice of granting a mostly foreign-born minority of Jewish settlers, colonists and refugees more than half of Palestine to create a Jewish state at the expense of the native Arab population. 

Fighting for Palestine

For all their dependency on British or US power and their own dynastic and geopolitical interests, the pro-western Hashemites in Jordan and Iraq and their rivals, Saudi Arabia, as well as Syria and Egypt, felt compelled to mobilise in May 1948 in an attempt to prevent the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. As poorly equipped and trained as most of their armies were, the Arab states sent actual military detachments to fight in and for Palestine. 

Although Jordan's King Abdullah secretly colluded with the Zionists to divide Palestine, his army nevertheless fought the Zionists to prevent the fall of the Old City of Jerusalem. At a basic level, Arabs collectively understood the existential threat posed by the creation of a modern, expansionist, western settler-colonial, ethno-religious, nationalist state in their midst. 

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After the Nakba of 1948, the anti-colonial, secular Arab pedagogue Sati al-Husri reflected on how several Arab states could fail to defeat Israel. His answer was that it was precisely because there were several Arab states. His point was that Arab states reflected a western policy of divide-and-rule, and the absence of Arab political unity inevitably weakened the Arab ability not only to resist colonial Zionism, but also to aspire to meaningful self-determination and sovereignty. 

Among those who fought in Palestine in 1948 and were profoundly shaped by the experience of defeat, emerging with an anti-colonial vision, was the Egyptian and Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. He led the Egyptian revolution of 1952, and then directly challenged western imperialism and Arab official quiescence by building up Egypt's army, nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956, supporting national liberation movements in Algeria and Palestine, and helping to consolidate the Non-Aligned Movement. 

After the 1973 war, one after another, the significant Arab states fell in line with Washington, accepting their subordinate role

Nasser spoke and acted defiantly. More than any other Arab leader, he represented the anti-colonial moment of the 1950s. He embodied what philosopher Frantz Fanon called "the pitfalls of national consciousness", which led to the consolidation of power by an authoritarian post-colonial leader, and the genuine Arab desire to be free that drove this national consciousness to begin with.

Nasser understood the threat that colonial Zionism posed to Arab self-determination, and he increasingly recognised the centrality of the question of Palestine to the wider Arab desire for meaningful independence and development.    

The shocking Arab defeat of 1967 lost the Arabs more than what was left of historic Palestine, with the Israelis conquest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The war effectively also lost them their most inspirational secular nationalist leader, Nasser, who would soon die in 1970. In addition, they lost their collective voice. 

De-Arabising Arabs

Taking advantage of Nasser's downfall, the US worked hard to defang secular Arab anti-colonialism and build up Israel militarily (while turning a blind eye to its nuclear weapons programme). The US also worked relentlessly to isolate the question of Palestine - and hence the fate of Palestinians - from any concerted Arab state support.

The US had long known that its overt support for Israel was the great driver of anti-American political sentiment in the region, from which the US wanted oil and pro-western "stability", not democracy. It thus proffered Arabs the pretence of "even-handedness", while encouraging deeply anti-democratic, absolutist, pro-western monarchies in the Gulf to fight a Palestine-centric anti-colonial consciousness. 

After 1967, a State Department research memorandum insisted that the Arab failure to become a secular democratic "modern man" was rooted in an allegedly internal archaic Islamic mentality, not external geopolitical reasons. The memorandum stated that what was required was, in essence, "the de-Arabisation" of the Arabs; that is, to make them accept the supposed rational values of the West, which included its support for Israel.

What was strongly implied by the memorandum was the  Arabs had to be made to accept Israel's domination of the Palestinian people, reject the myth of secular Arab unity, and submit to the US architecture of hegemony over the petroleum-rich Middle East. 

One pillar of this hegemony depended on despotic oil-rich states, such as the Shah's Iran and Saudi Arabia; the other pillar rested on Israel, which was allowed to begin its colonisation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights.

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The 1973 Arab-Israeli war saw the US overtly aiding Israel's military for the first time. It also marked the last time the world witnessed concerted Arab state action to resist Israel militarily and economically. As Egyptian and Syrian armies sought to retake their occupied lands, the Saudi-led Arab oil-producing states imposed an oil embargo on the philo-Zionist West. 

After the war, however, one after another, the significant Arab states fell in line with Washington, accepting their subordinate role within a US architecture of hegemony over the Middle East. 

The rewards of lavish western attention and praise were too tempting for Arab despots, while the costs of ongoing warfare with Israel were made to appear far too high for their societies to bear. In 1978, Egypt under President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab state to break openly with the Arab consensus around Palestine.

It signed a peace treaty with Israel that abandoned Palestinians to their fate under Israeli colonialism, and accepted the humiliating Israeli terms for demilitarising the Sinai. Camp David marked Egypt's formal subordination to an Israel-centric Middle East policy, which is why the liberal West hails Sadat as a visionary, and has supported the autocratic governments led by former military men Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Henceforth, the US-equipped Egyptian army would be used almost exclusively to suppress Egypt's own democratic aspirations, and not to fight Israel.  

US hegemony 

Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 consecrated the new official Arab acquiescence to US hegemony over the region. For three months, Israel pummelled an Arab capital city. It oversaw the largest single massacre of Palestinian civilians in their modern history (before the current war on Gaza) in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, after the US negotiated the exile of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to Tunis in return for the protection of Palestinian refugees.

In sum, Israel killed 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians that summer. But the Arab states in Washington's orbit, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sat impotently on the sidelines. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 accelerated the disintegration of even the pretence of official Arab unity. Kuwait's punitive mass expulsion of its Palestinian residents after the war confirmed this disintegration. 

The more the US military presence in the Gulf increased, the more the absolutist oil-rich Gulf states conformed to an increasingly explicit American vision of a new Middle East, with a belligerent and unapologetic Israel firmly at its centre.

US President Joe Biden listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on 18 October 2023 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
US President Joe Biden listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on 18 October 2023 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

With the advent of the US-led "peace process" of the post-Cold War 1990s, the PLO leadership in exile, and then Hashemite Jordan, also capitulated to US and Israeli demands for disadvantageous treaties. The new Palestinian Authority created by the Oslo Accords became an auxiliary of Israel's military control over the occupied West Bank and Gaza. 

As Israel flooded the occupied territories with Jewish colonists, in brazen violation of international law, Arab states were reduced to ineffectual pleading from the sidelines. 

Having abandoned any pretence of military resistance to Israeli colonialism, Arab governments in 2002 offered Israel a full peace in return for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. Israel rejected this offer out of hand, and the mostly pro-western Arab states, in turn, acquiesced to a US policy that was predicated on ignoring the question of Palestine. Focused on their own dynastic interests, they relegated the question of Palestine to irrelevance.

Embracing defeat

The 2017 US recognition under then-US President Donald Trump's administration of Israel's illegal annexation of Jerusalem, and the subsequent moving of its embassy there, confirmed official US contempt for Arab popular sentiment. The ensuing Abraham Accords, signed in 2020, confirmed Arab governments' own contempt for their repressed populations in return for various US favours. 

These accords - in which Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain "normalised" relations with a fanatical and totally unrepentant Israeli government that had clearly spelt out its intentions to never recognise meaningful Palestinian self-determination - typified the meaning of the US-led "peace process", which vacated any sense of needing Arab popular legitimacy for the acceptance of colonial Zionism. 

The US policy of forcing Arabs to embrace defeat appeared to have succeeded at the surface level. But it was based on a delusion that Palestinians would accept their fate as a colonised people in perpetuity; that Arab peoples would simply forget about Palestine being central to their ethics and worldview; that colonial Zionism could be imposed in its most racist form on the native peoples of the Arab East; and that American and Israeli power was irresistible. 

These Arab states act as if they have no resources, no leverage and no ability to do anything except plead with the Americans

The US convinced authoritarian Arab leaders of these notions, and that the Islamic Republic of Iran, and not Israel, was their principal enemy - but it did not convince the peoples of the region. 

US domination over the official Arab world - that is to say, a majority of Arab states that belong to the Arab League - ended formal Arab military resistance to Israel. But it also inevitably saw the mantle of Arab resistance to colonial Zionism taken up by non-state parties, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and more recently the Houthis (officially known as Ansar Allah) in Yemen, after the PLO had run its course. 

These organisations formed an "axis of resistance" backed by Iran, whose own geopolitical and ideological considerations have induced it to actively support military resistance to Israel. Islamist parties have successfully waged asymmetrical warfare against Israel, and their sustained defiance of Israeli brutality has garnered them enormous popular support - a popularity that eludes Arab governments.

They have been able to withstand a vastly greater amount of Israeli bombing than any Arab state has ever endured, and thus far, they have appeared vastly more capable than any conventional Arab army. Whereas the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria capitulated to Israel after six days in 1967, Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, the first time any Arab territory had been liberated through armed struggle. 

Hezbollah then endured a month of relentless Israeli warfare in 2006, only to emerge victorious and puncture the idea that Israel could not be defeated. Hamas has thus far endured nearly 150 days of indiscriminate Israeli bombardment, and yet as of this writing, it continues to fight. 

Global question

Today, despite Israel's genocidal assault being live-streamed around the world, leading Arab states have not carried out diplomatic or economic sanctions against Israel, let alone sent military forces to defend the Palestinian people, as their forebears did in 1948. 

While Latin American countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Columbia have recalled their ambassadors, or have severed or downgraded diplomatic ties with the Zionist state, not a single Arab state that has "normalised" with Israel has done so. 

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These Arab states act as if they have no resources, no leverage and no ability to do anything except plead with the Americans, who themselves loudly and bellicosely embrace colonial Zionism and enable the war on Palestine.

More to the point, these states are now convinced that their interests lay firmly within the undemocratic status quo that includes Israel. Palestinians in this sense are no longer seen by these states as a kindred people suffering from profound injustice as much as an anachronistic problem that affects regional stability and hampers economic prosperity.

At the Munich Security Conference on 17 February, while the Palestinians were being mercilessly bombed by Israel in besieged Gaza, the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, agreed with former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and castigated Hamas for being unrepresentative and for being outside the consensus calling for a "recognition of Israel".

Post-apartheid South Africa's recent petition to the International Court of Justice to stop Israel's genocide against the Palestinian people was replete with symbolism. But also telling was the reluctance of either Egypt or Saudi Arabia - the purported leaders of the Arab world - to strongly support South Africa's petition. 

The Arab League issued a belated series of perfunctory tweets on 10 January stating that it was "natural" for the Arab League to support South Africa. Official Arab reticence constitutes its own indictment, but it also sends a clear message to the world: whereas Arab peoples from Morocco to Yemen have not accepted defeat and overwhelmingly support the liberation of Palestine, the official, despotic and sclerotic Arab leadership has indeed embraced defeat on the question of Palestine. 

This is much to the satisfaction of Israel and the US, just as, ironically, Palestine has again become a global question.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dr. Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History and Chancellor’s Chair at the University of California Berkeley. Professor Makdisi’s most recent book Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World was published in 2019 by the University of California Press. He is also the author of Faith Misplaced: the Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001 (Public Affairs, 2010). His previous books include Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008), which was the winner of the 2008 Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association, the 2009 John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association, and a co-winner of the 2009 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize given by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies.
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