Hamas violence meets Gulf silence
Eight months since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain shocked the world by announcing formal relations with Israel, diplomatic ties are facing their most severe test after the eruption of war in Gaza. The Gulf states were relatively muted in their criticism of Israel. Some might see that as a step forward. But their refusal to condemn Hamas, not to mention the terrorist group’s sponsors in Tehran, shows that more work is needed to strengthen this nascent alliance.
At the onset of the crisis, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan — all of which normalized relations with the Jewish state last year — criticized Israel. Sudan rebuked Israeli moves as “coercive action,” the UAE called on Israel to “take responsibility for de-escalation” at the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI noted that Israeli “violations” could “fuel tensions.” Bahrain punched the hardest, asking the Israeli government “to stop these rejected provocations against the people of Jerusalem.”
Gulf states that did not normalize with Israel also weighed in. Saudi Arabia “rejected” Israel’s plan to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. The kingdom also called for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders. Oman and Qatar, one of Hamas’ top financial patrons, did the same. Kuwait, interestingly, issued a second statement after public outcry over its original, somewhat milder stance; Kuwaitis subsequently staged a sit-in outside the parliament to protest normalization with the Jewish state and evince support for the Palestinians.
Such condemnation is par for the course, after seven decades of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Moreover, criticism of Israel’s military response to Hamas rockets is within reason — as is criticism of Israel’s social media messaging. But there was no condemnation of Iran, the Gulf states’ most determined foe. Iran provided Hamas with the rockets, training, cash, and other assistance that it required to prepare for this conflict.
Moreover, there was no condemnation of Hamas, the terrorist group in Gaza that single-handedly sparked the war. The group cynically wielded Al-Aqsa tensions to win political points, and began barraging Israel with rockets earlier this week. The group has launched more than 4,000 rockets — and even drones — one of which set ablaze an oil facility in Ashkelon.
Certain Gulf states’ silence on Hamas’s violence is particularly puzzling given their mutual animosities. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE especially, this Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has long been an object of their ire. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi both designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014. And Hamas is certainly not chasing these countries’ approval. The group has set up headquarters in Qatar — the Gulf state that was singled out by these states for the last four years for supporting terrorism. In a direct shot at the UAE and Bahrain, Khaled Meshaal, former head of Hamas’ politburo and current diaspora director, called countries that normalized with Israel “worthless scum,” “people who have lost their conscience,” and no longer belong to the Islamic nation.
The silence of the Gulf states can most likely be attributed to their fears of provoking anti-government sentiments at home, or perhaps even extremists in other countries around the region. Protests against Israel have recently taken place in Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan. A sign at a protest in Bahrain stated “Jerusalem is ours, liberating Palestine is our duty,” while the hashtag “Jerusalem_is_my_cause” trended on Moroccan social media.
Interestingly, the hashtag “Palestine is not our cause” trended in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This reflects the driving force of the normalization agreements signed last year. Indeed, these agreements came about because Arab states increasingly reject the Palestinian issue as a core national interest after years of needless conflict in the Middle East.
De-prioritizing the Palestinian cause doesn’t mean that these countries must embrace every Israeli policy. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they should stop supporting the idea of Palestinian nationalism. But these states have no reason not to call out Hamas, or the regime in Iran, for launching this latest conflict. The militant group and its patron are as much, if not far more, responsible for the current violence as Israel. Moreover, Hamas’ disregard for civilian lives, ruthless and unwarranted escalation, and selfish co-optation of the conflict to serve its political goals deserve to be highlighted by all the stakeholders in the region.
Such condemnations from the Gulf would carry significant political weight, given the Gulf’s — especially Saudi Arabia’s — standing in the Muslim world. They would also convey the Gulf’s commitment to securing a more peaceful Middle East — which, after all, was the primary reason for the Abraham Accords. Silence, however, is also a gift to Iran, these states’ arch-rival, and for extremist groups across the region.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst specializing in Gulf Arab affairs. Follow them on Twitter @JSchanzer and @varshakoduvayur.