Quiet in Arab World over Gaza Showed Sunni Divide

By Jonathan Kamel

(Photo of Arab Leaders, by Reuters. Courtesy of Al Arabiya.net)


Several prominent Arab countries remained remarkably quiet during last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas. During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Israel found itself under pressure from all of its neighboring countries. Today, changes in the Middle East have realigned relationships in Israel’s favor.

Egypt under General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has strongly taken a stance against Hamas, viewing the Islamic group as a foreign backed entity on its Sinai border. Hamas is also aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a political party that has been casted as a terrorist organization by the Sisi regime. Other Sunni nations such as Jordan, the U.A.E, and Saudi Arabia have all followed Egypt’s lead, choosing not to condemn the destruction in Gaza. This silence all but placed them in Israel’s camp. While none of these states vocally expressed pro-Israel views during the conflict, behind closed doors there was no sympathy for Hamas.

As Aaron David Miller, a Woodrow Wilson Scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington told the New York Times, “I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummeling of Hamas,” he said. “The silence is deafening.”

Operation Protective Edge revealed a serious rift in the Sunni Arab world. On one side is the moderate faction led by Egypt, which is pro-West, authoritarian, and anti-Islamist. Making up the other camp is Qatar and Turkey who have joined forces to back Hamas and overtly condemn Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Israel of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler” and has vowed to send Hamas a Flotilla to break the Israeli blockade. Qatar has been a Hamas patron for several years, harboring its political leaders and funneling money to the organization through major donors. Qatari support for Hamas has caused several tensions with Egyptian regime and within the Gulf States. The Emirates, Saudi Arabians, and Kuwaitis have placed tremendous amounts of pressure on Qatar to rebuke Hamas and mend relations with Egypt. It is only recently that Qatar obliged to these demands and kicked out Politburo leader Khaled Meshal who has now taken refuge in Turkey.

As editorialist David Brooks has pointed out, the Hamas-Israel war is more than another chapter in the Arab-Israel conflict, but a part of a regional proxy war between competing Sunni states. In this divide there is a clear divergence of interests between the Qatari and Turks who represent political Islam and the secular states led by Egypt. In a rare moment of unity in the Middle East, there has been a convergence of shared interests between Israel and Sunni powers to both defeat Hamas and their international backers.

To what extend this Sunni realignment will shape the future of Arab-Israeli relations and the peace process remains unknown. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority received tremendous support from these moderate states, particularly Egypt. At the same time, security cooperation between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt is at an all-time high due to the threat of the Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian civil war. While Abbas has expressed support for negotiations with Israel based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank does not seem likely due to ongoing regional turmoil. Despite a détente between Israel and its formal rivals, a breakthrough in the peace process remains elusive under the current leadership.

With Hamas currently deterred by Israeli military action last summer, Israel is experiencing a small moment of calm on its southern front. Yet regional positioning against Hamas in Gaza does not mean future conflicts with Israel will not occur. As Egypt continues to squeeze Hamas and shut down tunnels on the Sinai border while Israel continues the blockade, Hamas’s economic position in the strip will only worsen. Although regional alliances against Hamas have opened new windows in Arab-Israeli relations, practically they have not changed occurrences on the ground.

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