Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, hundreds of thousands around the world have rallied to call for an end to Israeli aggression against Palestinians. London’s “National March for Palestine” will go down as one of the largest demonstrations in British history. Hundreds of protesters organized by Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow staged sit-ins on Capitol Hill and in Grand Central Terminal, calling for a ceasefire. In France and Germany, many protests have been banned, and those that do take place have been met with teargas and water cannons.
Support for the national and human rights of Palestinians is near universal among the masses of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Popular unrest across the region has been so deep that authoritarian regimes with near-zero tolerance for protest have largely been forced to allow demonstrations out of fear that restricting them could create an even more profound level of unrest. But they are not without restriction: first, the ruling regimes do not want these demonstrations to evolve into expressions of mass discontent with their own governments. Second, countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan have normalized relations with Israel and must balance between popular outrage and diplomatic relations with Israel and the West.
In Egypt, where unauthorized protests are banned, the Sisi administration has organized staged pro-Palestinian protests, featuring portraits of the president and chants with his name. Many recognize these rallies as clear attempts to capitalize politically on the public mood ahead of the December elections. Unsanctioned demonstrations, on the other hand, have faced mass arrests. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of mass protest in 2011, protestors were beaten by police and chased out of the square. “Here they are, the Zionists!” the crowd chanted at the police, exposed for holding back the movement.
Thousands have taken the streets in Morocco calling for an end to the nation’s normalization with Israel, which established diplomatic and economic relations, but won key geopolitical benefits as well. Israel and the US now both recognize Morocco’s claim to the disputed Western Sahara, and the three are in a common bloc against Iran, who Morocco accused of funding the Western Saharan separatist movement. Consequently, Morocco’s official statement on the war was considered soft, and made no mention of Israel’s occupation as a catalyst. As protests broke out, Morocco adjusted its position, blaming Israel for the hospital blast. More recently, police shut down a demonstration at the French embassy, protesting Macron’s support for the war, and drove protesters into an alley.
Rallies in Jordan have demanded cancellation of its peace treaty with Israel and closure of the Israeli embassy in Amman. Jordan is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora population. King Abdullah has spoken out against Israel’s assault on Gaza and canceled his summit in Amman with Biden amid the explosion of mass protests across the region. The latest development was the recall of Jordan’s ambassador to Israel. But taking much more drastic action will jeopardize Jordan’s relationship with the US, which provides the kingdom with critical economic aid. The state maintains final say over what kind of protest is allowed. Protesters storming the Israeli embassy were doused with tear gas. Marchers headed towards the West Bank border received the same treatment. Crucially, protests have broken out in the West Bank itself. Containing these can pose a serious challenge for the Israeli regime.
Potential For Regional Escalation
Jordan and Egypt want deescalation of the war and a return to stability because they both have red lines which, if crossed by Israel, could compel them to enter a wider regional conflict.. Regarding the threat of forced Palestinian displacement from Gaza, Egypt’s parliament granted Sisi a mandate to take “necessary measures” to ensure national security, including war.
Should the governments of Egypt or Jordan facilitate this process with Israel, their populations would erupt in protest against their respective regimes. Further, Egypt is concerned that Hamas and smaller armed groups could enter, destabilize Sinai, launch attacks on Israel from Egyptian territory, and grow and recruit within the country. The potential Gaza exodus is a proposal actually outlined in a “concept paper” by an Israeli ministry. Netanyahu insists the paper is hypothetical.
Build The Movement Across The Region
It is true that some layers of these protests have illusions in Hamas and take up anti-Israel chants. But overwhelmingly, the motivation for protesting has been concern for the national and human rights of Palestinian people. The vast majority in MENA countries oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel, but the most common reason for this is the occupation. Hamas has support only because it is seen as the main leadership of resistance to occupation, and because of the total absence of an alternative. Among the population with the closest direct experience with Hamas – Gazans – recent polling found 67% to have little trust in Hamas.
The international depth of this movement and the consistency of solidarity across the MENA countries means the ruling regimes must be very careful to stay on the right side of public opinion. Regardless of their rhetoric, if governments are seen as wavering in their support for Palestinians, the movement can turn against them, and rebellion can spill over into countries across the region.
International demonstrations against the massacre in Gaza are critical, and workers must struggle everywhere against attacks on democratic rights. Trade unions should take a leading role in protests, as they are in Tunisia, and integrate working class economic demands on the ruling regimes into the movement. Massive strikes could spread throughout the region and inspire the kinds of actions desperately needed in Israel-Palestine.