Imad K. Harb
Al-Jazeera / May 14, 2023
The Palestinians have lost their Arab allies amid Arab regimes’ increasing authoritarianism and dependence on the US.
When Zionist forces embarked on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to establish the state of Israel in 1948, the plight of the Palestinian people shocked the Arab world. It angered Arab nations who were amid their own anti-colonial struggles and elevated the liberation of Palestine to the status of a pan-Arab cause.
But as Arab regimes, both republican and monarchical, became more established, the draw and the utility of the Palestinian cause for Arab leaders slowly began to fade.
The abandonment of the Palestinians is directly related to the undemocratic nature of Arab regimes and their continuing political dependence on the United States, the main supporter of Israel and its settler-colonial project.
Indeed, Palestine today appears like an afterthought in the Arab political order, with many states making peace and normalizing relations with Israel, the only colonial state left in the Arab world, while blaming Palestinian political disunity for this sad state of affairs.
The autocratic censorship of Palestine
The Palestinian cause has always been, and indeed remains, a central issue in the Arab public’s imagination and a symbol of the exercise of free expression. Regimes used to find it difficult to limit their people’s desire to voice their solidarity with Palestinians living as second-class citizens inside Israel, under occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and in squalid conditions in refugee camps across the region.
But with Arab governments becoming more authoritarian and entrenched, the space for advocacy for the Palestinian cause has shrunk. Increasing control over public discourse, growing censorship and escalating political violence have silenced dissent across the Arab world.
Not only are calls for democratic change stymied in Arab countries, but expressions of solidarity with Palestinians are also being met with vicious repression, as regimes seek to control the narrative of the Palestinian cause.
The aim of this monopolization of how the Palestinian struggle is addressed in public is to cover up the fact that Arab regimes have increasingly abandoned making any significant political effort to help the Palestinians. Instead, official support has been limited to deceptive rhetoric and symbolic gestures so as to avoid confrontation with Israel and its backer, the United States.
While this has been detrimental to the Palestinian struggle and popular Arab solidarity with it, it has enabled Arab governments to devote their energies to their own survival amid the myriad of political, economic, and social ailments they face.
Surrendering Palestine to the US
In 1977, a few months before his fateful trip to Israel, which paved the way for a US-brokered peace deal between Egypt and Israel, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat quipped that Washington held “99 percent of the cards” in the Middle East. The collapse of the Soviet Union 14 years later solidified that reality and Arab dependence on the US has only grown since then.
Seeking to maintain good relations with the superpower, Arab regimes allowed Washington – Israel’s main supplier of weapons and military support – to take control of peace efforts in the region. This left no space for Arab leaders to positively impact decision-making regarding the Palestinians.
Slowly but surely, the rights of the Palestinian people dropped down the priority list of Arab governments which saw the US as the main guarantor of their political survival and narrow economic interests.
The normalization process between some Arab states and Israel that was shepherded by the Trump administration is just another iteration of the gradual Arab abandonment of the Palestine cause. It culminated in the so-called Abraham Accords, which despite all the promises of “benefits” for the Palestinians, held nothing of value for them or their national aspirations.
In fact, the Arab normalization with Israel has only emboldened the Zionist state in its oppression of the Palestinians and paved the way for the de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank.
The escalating settler violence against the Palestinian people, including the recent pogrom against the Palestinian village of Huwara, and the open calls by Israeli officials for ethnic cleansing are a reflection of how empowered and confident Israel feels that it can commit war crimes and crimes against humanity with complete impunity.
The most that Arab governments have done in response to Israeli aggression is issue futile condemnations and protests.
The excuse of Palestinian disunity
Since 2007, when Hamas took over the government in the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled by Fatah, Palestine has not had a unified political leadership. Worse still, the PA, which is the internationally recognized body governing the occupied Palestinian territories, has lost almost all of its legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian population.
Palestinian political disunity has not only worked in Israel’s favour but has also become a convenient excuse for Arab regimes not to advance the Palestinian cause. They cynically reason that if Palestinians – who have over the years demanded to be independent in deciding their own affairs – do not have a unified stance, why and how could the Arab world work on their behalf?
At the same time, most Arab regimes have thrown their weight behind the PA, which has become an extension of the authoritarian Arab political order. It refuses to make itself accountable to the Palestinian people and at the same time does almost nothing to advocate for the Palestinians’ national and human rights.
By blaming Palestinian disunity and pretending to support Palestinians through the PA, Arab regimes have essentially abdicated their responsibility towards them.
Abandoned by Arab leaders, the Palestinians find themselves with no apparent allies in their struggle against an increasingly brutal occupation and apartheid. The US-brokered “peace process” is clearly a farce and international institutions, such as the United Nations, remain too weak – or rather intentionally weakened by the US – to take any meaningful action on their behalf.
And yet, the status quo of Palestinian dispossession, life under a brutal occupation, and Israeli apartheid is not sustainable. The Palestinian question continues to be the open wound of the Arab world.
Today, it appears that only the Palestinians can lead their own struggle for liberation – one that is based on a national project that includes all sectors of Palestinian society inside Palestine and in the diaspora and that is based on the ideas of inclusion, pluralism, and democracy.
The ossified Palestinian national institutions must be renewed through open democratic processes, including the election of new leadership that could take over from old and failed elites. The Palestinian civil society, educational and social institutions, the youth movement, and other organizations must also be involved in developing this national project.
As for the Arab political order, it has shown that it is unreliable, so long as it is authoritarian and dependent on the very power that sustains Israel and supports its policies. Indeed, the Arab world may one day be capable of playing a positive role in helping Palestinians; but that will only be possible after it undergoes its own process of democratization and renewal.
Imad K. Harb is Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC