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‘Prison break’: Hamas war stirs Arab world’s antipathy to Israel

As Israelis mourned their dead and struggled to come to terms with the darkest day in the Jewish state’s history, Arab social media was buzzing with variations of its own take on Hamas’s deadly attack: “Prison Break”.

Across different platforms, posts displayed images ranging from the broken Israeli security barrier that hems in Gaza — the Palestinian territory from which Hamas launched its dawn assault on southern Israel — to a clenched fist in the colours of the Palestinian flag breaking out of Israeli shackles.

The viral posts reflect how many across the Arab world have been ambivalent or openly supportive of the brutal Hamas attack, seizing the moment to express their solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Many of those posting on social media chose to ignore the images of the atrocities committed by Hamas fighters, who killed more than 1,200 people, including women and children, and kidnapped dozens, according to Israeli officials. Voices condemning the militant faction for targeting civilians were often drowned out.

Arab officials and analysts say the response is to be expected for a people who for 75 years have watched Israel embroiled in conflict with Palestinians, discriminating against them and occupying their lands, while building a military that defeated Arab armies.

“I’m not surprised, I’m disheartened, because what Hamas did was absolutely barbaric and unjustifiable, but Arabs just see what they want to see,” said an Arab analyst. “They’ve been on the receiving end of momentous loss, misery and humiliation so they discount what the other side is facing.”

Reinforcing the sense of schadenfreude was the knowledge that the attack was carried out by a Palestinian faction that was able to breach security barriers of the impoverished Gaza Strip to deliver a stinging blow to the Middle East’s most powerful security forces. Arabs and human rights activists have long described Gaza as an “open-air prison”.

But ultimately the reaction reflected how decades of conflict have taught many Arabs and Israelis to dehumanise each other. The hostility stretches back to the Jewish state’s birth in 1948 — which Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, as several hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Palestinians carry their belongings as they leave their neighbourhood in Gaza City on Wednesday © Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

The analyst said some in the Arab world were “finding ways to justify their darkest feelings”, whether ideologically through the belief that all Israelis are “settlers” on Arab land, or by embracing a “fact-free narrative” by choosing not to believe Hamas committed atrocities against civilians.

Arab governments also put out statements supportive of the Palestinians. They condemned the violence, but pointed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as the root cause of Hamas’s attack, which has disrupted the drive by the US and Israel to foster greater ties between Jewish state and Arab nations.

“The conflict has exposed the myth that Israel doesn’t need peace with the Palestinians and they can forge it with the rest of the Arab world,” said Marwan Muasher, a Jordanian former foreign minister. “That was a myth and this has proved it.”

Diplomats said the Arab sentiment was not about support for Hamas — it is reviled as an Iranian-aligned extremist faction by many Arab states and people — but about solidarity with Palestinians, particularly those blockaded in Gaza.

“It’s a precedent that inspires many in the region, because the situation was simply untenable in the Palestinian territories and no one was paying attention,” said an Arab official.

He cited recent assaults on Palestinians around the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, saying: “These things don’t go unnoticed in the Arab world.”

Muslim worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in June © Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Hamas has long championed itself as the defender of Al-Aqsa, which lies in a compound known by Palestinians as Haram al-Sharif and is Islam’s third holiest site. The compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and the holiest site in Judaism, is a constant flashpoint in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arab diplomats and analysts say Arab hostility towards Israel has ramped up since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed the Jewish state’s most extreme, far-right government late last year. Ahead of the formation of a national unity government on Wednesday, his coalition included religious Zionist settlers who openly speak about annexing the occupied West Bank and have a history of demonising Palestinians.

The sentiments are exacerbated by the plight of 2.3mn Palestinians packed into Gaza, with Israel and Egypt controlling entry points to the coastal strip. It is now being pounded by Israeli air strikes, and more than 1,200 people have been killed by Israel’s bombardment of the enclave since Saturday, according to Gazan health officials.

Palestinian anger has also been fuelled by almost daily Israeli raids in the West Bank over the past 18 months, coupled with the creeping annexation of the territory.

“There’s a radical and racist Israeli government, there’s a Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank] that has very little credibility among its people, and there’s an international community that has basically ignored the Palestinian issue, particularly the United States,” said Muasher. “So we were waiting for this . . . what do you expect, people to stay caged forever?”

Jordan and Egypt, which both border Israel, have long warned of the risks of ignoring the Palestinian issue, while successive US administrations have pushed Arab states to normalise relations with Israel. Until recently, Egypt and Jordan were the only two Arab nations to have full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Both have a history of conflict with Israel and have endured a cold peace.

But in 2020, former US President Donald Trump brokered transactional deals that led to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

They are all nations that lack borders with Israel and did not take part in the Arab wars against the Jewish state. Palestinian leaders accused the group of betraying their cause, as Israel made no meaningful concessions to the Palestinians.

Israel-Hamas war

More recently, President Joe Biden has been seeking a deal that would lead Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. But the Hamas attack has probably scuppered those plans, just as they appeared to be inching towards an agreement.

Saudi Arabia — which is no supporter of Hamas — issued a statement saying it had warned against Israeli “provocations” before the war. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman then spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and reaffirmed his support for the Palestinians.

Emile Hokayem, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Hamas had shown that it could reshape the regional dynamics.

“This war is going to be transformational, it’s going to force Israel to think very differently about the region. It will turn the discourse away from what was dominating — normalisation, trade, infrastructure and co-operation,” Hokayem added.

“We shouldn’t expect the same warmth [towards Israel], the forthcoming attitude from Arab states; the conversation is going to be primarily about security rather than integration and trade.”

For some in the Arab world, there are also fears the conflict will spill across borders. In Lebanon, a country struggling with an economic crisis and political paralysis, the worry is that the Iran-backed militant movement Hizbollah will get drawn into the war, prompting Israel to respond with its military might against their state.

In Egypt and Jordan, there is unease about the potential for Israel to attempt to push the Palestinian issue across these countries’ borders: both had warned Israel that Palestinian frustration could erupt in an attack. Others worry that the west’s response to Hamas’s brutality has given Israel the green light to use unlimited force against Gaza.

“It’s brought the Palestinian issue back to the spotlight,” said an Arab diplomat. “But there’s a bit of a reaction to the way western countries have been willing to give carte blanche [to Israel] to do what it wants in retaliation.”

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