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How Arab states could respond to an Israeli invasion of Gaza

How Arab states could respond to an Israeli invasion of Gaza
8 min read
24 October, 2023
Analysis: Policymakers in the Arab world are concerned not only about the potential of a regional war but also about whether popular mobilisation for Palestine could turn into dissent against ruling elites.

Since Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, waged its unprecedented incursion into southern Israel on 7 October, thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians have lost their lives.

This surprise attack from Gaza severely traumatised the Israelis, who are not used to deadly violence of this magnitude on their own soil.

Now Israel’s leadership and most of the country’s citizens seek revenge, which has thus far entailed a brutal bombing campaign of Gaza.

While lacking an endgame for Gaza, Israel does not appear to be pursuing any realistic goals other than subjecting the 2.3 million Palestinians in the besieged enclave, roughly half of whom are children, to a cruel form of collective punishment.

Now an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza looms. Massive amounts of death on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides are sure to result from such an invasion.

The resistance that the Israeli military would meet in this highly urbanised and densely populated territory would be fierce. What such a military operation would mean for the future of Hamas, the people of Gaza, Israel, and the wider region is less than clear.

Regional concerns

Important questions to consider about an Israeli invasion of Gaza relate to responses from the Arab states across the wider region.

Such a campaign and its fallout would probably highlight divides among Arab governments.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that normalised diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), openly condemned Hamas for launching its 7 October surprise attack.

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If Israel wages a ground invasion of Gaza, officials in Bahrain and the UAE would probably be less critical than some other Arab states that have either firmly opposed normalisation with Israel or at least decided not to join the Abraham Accords, such as Algeria, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.

“I think the response [of Arab states to an Israeli invasion of Gaza] is going to be directly proportional to their relationship with Israel,” said Dr Nader Hashemi, the director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, in an interview with The New Arab.

“The UAE, which has the closest relationship with Israel and has been very slow and mild in its criticism of recent events, I think will adopt a somewhat milder and different position than the other Arab states that will be critical of an Israeli invasion of Gaza. So, I think that’s the key guide to measuring the various responses,” added Dr Hashemi.

Israeli bombardments of Gaza have killed over 5,000 Palestinians since 7 October. [Getty]

Legitimacy crises in the Arab world

Another important variable in the equation is regime legitimacy. The more the leadership of any given Arab state is concerned about a legitimacy crisis at home, the more the response to an Israeli invasion of Gaza would probably be more clamorous.

Vehement responses could placate public opinion on the Palestinian cause, which is an extremely important issue to their citizens.

“The plight of the Palestinians weighs very heavily on the conscience of most Arabs and Muslims. The question of Palestine is a key marker of identity for Arabs and Muslims. The ruling elites have a very different view,” Dr Hashemi told TNA.

“So, I think the biggest concern would be if there is ongoing suffering, human rights violations, crimes against humanity, war crimes, that this would then lead to popular mobilisation which would be first and foremost in solidarity with the Palestinians.”

It is clear that such anger on the part of citizens of Arab countries could go from being directed against Israel and the US toward their own ruling elites who have (formal or informal) relationships with Tel Aviv and deep partnerships with Washington.

“I think we’re seeing all kinds of public grievances being outpoured in the Arab world under the pretext of demonstrating for Palestine and against Israel when in reality people are just very much outraged and aggrieved by overall socio-economic, socio-political situations post-Arab Spring,” Dr Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London, said in a TNA interview.

“The region is ripe for some mobilisation, dissent, and some uproar. We’ve seen a lot of that dissent happening in the Emirates as well. It has been the case for decades already that in all [Arab] authoritarian countries the Palestinian cause was always somewhat of a valve where you could allow your public to release some steam and anger directed at Israel instead of keeping that pressure on and not allowing people to demonstrate,” he added.

“What people really wanted to do was to demonstrate against their regimes that were failing them, and we see that with Sisi in Egypt, in Jordan, and we’re seeing that across the Gulf as well where autocratic and authoritarian countries are allowing their people to demonstrate for Palestine and against Israel, and thereby let off some steam.”

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Jordan King Abdullah II deciding to cancel a multilateral meeting in Amman with President Joe Biden due to his administration’s iron-clad support for Israel’s actions post-7 October speaks to the extent to which these authorities are concerned about the domestic situations in their own countries.

“They have to deal with the wrath of their own populations who are angry with the general state of affairs in the region and also with the corrupt dictatorial rule of ruling elites who don’t seem to care about the Palestinians but only with lining their own pockets,” commented Dr Hashemi.

In a TNA interview, Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House, explained that policymakers across the Arab world have two main concerns about an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. The first is an ‘Arab Spring 2.0’ scenario and the second would be a regional war.

“Both possible scenarios carry the potential of destabilising regional security, directly threatening the security of the regimes, giving space to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to gain legitimacy in the streets and, in the case of an Israeli military defeat, potentially lay the groundwork for Iran’s regional dominance to prevail,” Aboudouh added.

Israel's military has been mobilising its forces for a ground invasion of Gaza. [Getty]

“Either of these scenarios will be enough to fatally threaten the Gulf economic visions and the de-escalation trajectory in the region, including Saudi–Israel normalisation and the Saudi-Iran thaw.”

Depending on how an invasion of Gaza would play out, it is reasonable to raise the question of whether any Arab country in the Abraham Accords might abrogate its normalisation deal with Israel. It seems unlikely, although not impossible.

The chances are far greater that the UAE or Bahrain would take steps short of pulling out of the Abraham Accords. Such steps could entail withdrawing ambassadors or cooling the relationships with Tel Aviv.

Abu Dhabi or Manama taking such a middle-ground approach could potentially enable these two capitals to keep benefitting from being in the Abraham Accords - most importantly in relation to their networks and access in Washington where the pro-Israel bias heavily shapes the foreign policy establishment as well as trade, commercial, investment, and technological ties to Israel - while also making a symbolic gesture that aligns with domestic and regional public opinion.

What is notable, however, is that, at least so far, no Arab state in the normalisation camp has made any such diplomatic moves toward Israel this month amid escalating violence and harsher collective punishment on the people trapped in Gaza.

“In the course of normal relationships, when one state is upset with the behaviour of another state where you have diplomatic relations, there are these symbolic gestures,” commented Dr Hashemi. “None of the Arab states have done that. None of the Arab states are talking about doing this. This raises questions as to why.”

Great power competition

It is impossible to analyse how Arab states might react to this looming Israeli ground invasion of Gaza without taking stock of the extent to which the world is becoming much more multipolar.

Against the backdrop of China deploying six warships to the Middle East - itself one of the most underreported developments amid this crisis -and Russia using strong language to condemn the US for its role vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine, clearly neither Beijing nor Moscow is choosing to sit on the sidelines.

It will be critical to see how Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, and the GCC members react to both China and Russia’s handling of this crisis, especially if it spills into other parts of the Middle East where Beijing and Moscow have vested interests.

“Russia and China have announced they are coordinating their response to the crisis,” Aboudouh told TNA. “This is a first in the Middle East and North Africa context, and if it goes beyond rhetoric and optics, it may have serious repercussions for the great power balance in the Gaza final solution, the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the overall regional order in the future.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero