Over the last five weeks, the Israel Defense Forces have killed 46 unarmed Palestinian civilians and wounded hundreds more as the residents of the Gaza Strip protest Israel’s crushing, eleven-year blockade of their territory. President Donald Trump’s newly minted secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, sees nothing wrong with that. “We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves,” he said while visiting Jordan, “and we’re fully supportive of that.”
Writing at The Forward last week, journalist Peter Beinart made a compelling argument to the contrary: that Israel is principally responsible for the misery in Gaza, and American Jews have a moral obligation to protest the blockade.
“Why are thousands of Palestinians risking their lives by running toward the Israeli snipers who guard the fence that encloses Gaza? Because Gaza is becoming uninhabitable,” Beinart wrote. “Israeli policies are instrumental in denying Gaza’s people the water, electricity, education and food they need to live decent lives. How do kind, respectable, well-meaning American Jews defend this?”
There’s plenty of blame to go around on Gaza: Beinart cites the Palestinian Authority, Hamas (the Islamic militant group that governs Gaza), and Egypt (which shares a border with Gaza). But he could have gone further. Blame also lies with autocratic Arab countries beyond Egypt who have gone quiet about Gaza.
As USA Today reported in early April, “Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned Israel for a lethal response to protests that the groups said did not pose a serious threat to Israeli soldiers. The response in the Arab world, by contrast, has been more muted, apparently because Israel’s behavior is less worrisome to moderate Arab leaders than ... Hamas and its allies, such as Iran.”
Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s foreign policy, for instance, is geared towards creating a coalition to contain Iran, which the crown prince sees as the root of most evil in the region. In an interview with The Atlantic, he said that “the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good.”
Thus, he seems intent on pursing a policy of normalizing relations with Iran’s enemy, Israel, even if it means sidelining the cause of Palestinian statehood and abandoning Palestinian human rights. “In the last several decades the Palestinian leadership has missed one opportunity after the other and rejected all the peace proposals it was given,” Bin Salman reportedly told a group of Jewish organizations in New York last month in a private meeting. “It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.”
Writing at Al Jazeera in January, University of Ummah political scientist Adnan Abu Amer noted that “Saudi and Israeli political leadership agree on a number of issues, the most important of which is the need to curb Iran’s growing influence and to keep the US engaged in the Middle East. Pursuing these common interests, the Saudis and the Israelis have intensified their efforts for a formal normalisation of relations.”
There are other reasons, beyond Iran, that the Arab autocracies have been less reliable defenders of the Palestinian cause in recent years. The Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, and the chaos in Syria has fed a fear of popular insurgencies. Hence there is little appetite for supporting another intifada.
The consequence of this policy is that Palestinians feel orphaned by Arab leaders. Abu Amer cites polls from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Gaza and the West Bank showing that 82 percent of Palestinians don’t trust Saudi Arabia to defend their rights. There were nearly as high levels of distrust of the United Arab Emirates (75 percent) and Egypt (70 percent). These poll numbers suggest that the dream of a pan-Arab movement to create a Palestinian state may be over.
Because Saudi Arabia and other Arab autocracies are not democracies, their policies do not necessarily reflect the will of their own people, who remain strongly pro-Palestinian. Last year, the Arab Center in Washington polled citizens of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. “Overall,” they found, “the importance of the Palestinian issue is still high among the vast majority of respondents (88%), with 74% gauging the issue of Palestine as ‘very important’ to them personally.”
So long as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other anti-Iran regimes in the Middle East remain repressive autocracies, these public opinion numbers will mean little. The Arab masses may hate that their leaders are silent accomplices to the Palestinian tragedy, but they’re powerless to change the status quo. That’s why Beinart’s argument, for American Jews to protest Israel’s treatment of Gaza, is all the more urgent.
“The organized American Jewish community doesn’t only conceal the truth about Gaza from itself. It lobbies American politicians to do the same,” he wrote. “It excoriates politicians who dare to suggest that Israel bears some of the responsibility for Gaza’s suffering. In doing so, it helps to sustain Israel’s current policies and to foreclose alternatives.”
Trump has been an unquestioning supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long taken a hardline stance against the Palestinians, and now the administration has given its imprimatur to Israel’s brutal repression of protestors. But if American Jews, including politically powerful groups like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, take the opposing position, it just might show one of the advantages of democracy by changing the conversation about Gaza—and, eventually, the fate of the people there.