Since the Arab uprisings began in late 2010, Palestine has seemed to recede to the margins of Arab discourse. The agenda has been understandably dominated by intensely urgent issues such as the war in Syria, domestic upheavals and uprisings, and the World Cup. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process captured little attention.
What did Palestine’s relatively declining place in Arab discourse really mean, though? For many analysts, especially in the West and Israel, it signaled a nail in the coffin of theories of linkage and the relevance of the Palestinian issue. For others, it was just a matter of the news cycle, since Palestine hadn’t had the mass demonstrations on the Tahrir Square model or the mass slaughter of Syria’s model.
The new round of violence between Israel and Gaza puts these competing hypotheses to the test: Has the Palestinian issue really lost its centrality to Arab identity or did it retain the latent power to galvanize Arab attention? As a simple, preliminary test, I searched the Twitter proxy service Topsy for all tweets in Arabic about Syria, Iraq and Gaza over the last month. The results are pretty striking:
Syria (in blue), which in 2012 and early 2013 consistently generated millions of tweets per month in Arabic, shows a relatively low level flat line. The shocking developments in Iraq (in green) galvanized attention in mid-June, and Iraq continues to attract more attention now than does Syria. But Gaza, after being virtually ignored for a long time, surges to dominate everything else once the conflict begins. Score one for the “latent relevance” hypothesis.
That doesn’t mean that nothing has changed, of course. Arab publics remain intensely divided and frustrated, while Arab regimes remain intensely repressive and more fearful than ever of popular mobilization. Sectarianism remains rampantly virulent, and the regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood can’t help but affect public sentiment toward Hamas (especially in Egypt). The Gulf states and their media seem to be replaying 2006, when they tried to buy Israel time to finish off Hezbollah. But one of the lessons of 2006 was the limitations of such efforts: Hezbollah garnered widespread, intense Arab support for its struggle against Israel despite the Arab media’s coverage and the sectarianism generated by Iraq’s civil war. The solidarity generated by the killing of innocent fellow Arabs by Israel tends to overwhelm political divisions, even among those who blamed Hezbollah then or blame Hamas today for the war.
The Gaza war also offers a chance to test the significance of the absence of a common unifying media like Al Jazeera. The fragmentation of the Arab media and the decline of Al Jazeera, along with the rise of social media, have generally encouraged polarization. Supporters of Syrian rebels and of President Bashar al-Assad see, experience and feel entirely different wars. But the Palestinian narrative may be so entrenched, and the emotional resonance of Israeli attacks on Palestinians so intense, that it overwhelms this tendency toward fragmentation. Unlike in Egypt, where opinion divided into two hostile and largely irreconcilable camps, most Arabs are on the same side with regard to the Palestinian issue. This will likely reward outbidding in the same direction rather than the retreat into competing isolated trenches – and make it much harder for Arab regimes to divide and distract their publics.
One other point is clear from following the debates in Arabic on social media. The images out of Gaza look remarkably similar to those out of Aleppo or Homs: The same innocent civilians emerging from ruins of bombed out buildings and dead children in the arms of wailing parents. To Arabs deeply saturated in the long history of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war has no more legitimacy than does Assad’s, and probably less. Arabs notice, with little surprise, that Western advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect” have made no calls for No-Fly Zones over Gaza, the arming of moderate Palestinian rebels, or International Criminal Court referrals or U.N. sanctions against Israel. To liberal interventionists in Washington, the reasons for this difference no doubt appear obvious. To most Arabs, what is obvious is the hypocrisy.
Note: Updated September 25, 2023.