It was an unusual scene: an Arab, Muslim tourist walking through Jerusalem's Old City was chased by Palestinian kids who spat on him and threw a plastic chair at him; then he was verbally attacked and kicked out of the al-Aqsa mosque compound itself.
But he wasn’t just any tourist. Mohammed Saud is a Saudi Arabian student - and a hyper-enthusiastic pro-Israel activist. His politics, which might once have been dangerously anomalous for a Saudi citizen, are now effectively Saudi policy.
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His embrace of Israel’s government was familiar to his East Jerusalem detractors, who shouted at him ripe criticisms of the Saudi royal family for its normalization with Israel, understood to be at the expense of the Palestinians.
Saud came to Israel on an invitation from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an "Arab media representative," despite holding no media credentials other than his twitter account, which he uses regularly to troll Palestinians and promote pro-Netanyahu propaganda.
His visit was another initiative - after the Kushner summit in Bahrain and Israeli official visits to Oman and the UAE - in the joint Trump administration and Israeli government efforts to openly promote Israeli-Arab normalization.
Saud met with state officials and well-known Israeli right-wingers, like MK Yehuda Glick, who’s most famous for having led the partially state-funded Temple Institute that calls for replacing the al-Aqsa mosque with the Third Temple .
It was Saud’s bad luck that his deeply provocative visit to Israel took place on the same day that Israel demolished 70 Palestinian homes in the neighborhood of Sur Baher, which is nominally under Palestinian Authority control, and forcefully displaced its residents. There was deafening silence from the Saudi kingdom.
Saud was a convenient target for the cumulative Palestinian anger at Saudi Arabia’s sustained cozying up to Israel.
His itinerary was seen to embody everything that’s wrong with the Saudi approach to normalization: throwing Palestinians under the bus, selling them out for the sake of closer cooperation between a Saudi brutal regime and Netanyahu's right-wing government, then pandering to Jerusalem’s Muslim identity and paying lip service to the Palestinian cause.
While some Palestinian and Arab commentators saw the footage as disturbing, many cheered it - albeit acknowledging its ugliness - as an expression of resistance against the greater ugliness of the Saudi regime’s sell out.
Predictably, the Israeli government immediately capitalized on both Saud’s presence and the Palestinian attacks against him to serve the Trump-Netanyahu narrative of a growing chasm between Arabs and Palestinians. Netanyahu apologized to Saud personally for the assault, while the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson used this incident to emphasize that it was the "the real face of the Palestinians."
Just as predictably, the bait was caught instantly by Saudi commentators, journalists, regime loyalists and twitter trolls and bots, who jumped on this propaganda gift to expedite the Arab world-Palestinian divorce, pointing out how Israel has never "shot a single bullet" towards Saudi Arabia, while calling out the Palestinian "monsters" for this "great amount of hatred."
However, there’s something much more disturbing about this incident than coordinated Saudi propagandists cherry-picking history in a love-fest with Israel to demonize Palestinians.
That disturbing issue is the Saudi propaganda apparatus, usually lurking in the shadows, but which shows itself during trolling performances like these.
First of all, the Saudi ruling class uses social media storms like these to showcase its "respect" for freedom of speech - this, in a kingdom infamous for its severe repression of civil liberties, opposition and dissent. The Saudi regime is showing its "toleration" by permitting a pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian dynamic to thrive online - positions that challenge its official pro-Palestinian policy, on paper, at least.
But the twitter storm reveals more. The Saudi regime seems desperate to systematically sow the conviction that there’s a sudden, yet mainstream, popular pro-normalization current in the kingdom. That current is apparently infatuated with Israel, while pro-Palestinian solidarity has abruptly diminished to zero. It’s the "true" voice of the people, not the regime, and they’ve grown tired and weary of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Of course, the truth is the Saudi regime has not suddenly discovered an abiding respect for freedom of speech, neither are online theatrics like these representative of Saudi public opinion – which remains cowed and unsurveyed. Saudi media is an echo chamber at best; a puppet theater with all the threads held in the hands of the regime.
Such propaganda campaigns are a cheap stunt, staged and state-sanctioned to manufacture consent and disguise disingenuous regime policies as a grassroots "uprising" against Palestinian positions. They are intended to provoke a Palestinian retaliation that would only prove and strengthen the claims of Saudi propagandists.
While regime loyalists receive "encouragement, gifts and rewards" from the Saudi government, as journalist Malha Abdullah boasted, there’s no freedom of speech, no tolerance and certainly no rewards for Saudis advocating anti-normalization activities.
Several Saudi activists who have criticized Israel or normalization have been swiftly arrested and detained without charges, including, last year, two women activists - Nuha al-Balwa and Nasima al-Sadah.
The Saudi voices of adulation shouldn’t gratify Israelis. Israelis should be far more aware that the Saudi troll army is fooling them into sharing a bed with an impulsive dictator, unconstrained by any principles or moral values.
Yes, Mohammed bin Salman is eager to normalize relations with Netanyahu’s government to secure his throne, just as he turned to him for help before - after the heinous murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which MBS orchestrated.
In fact, Khashoggi died fighting what's known as the "electronic flies," the alarming troll apparatus that the Saudi regime uses as an offensive weapon to "manufacture public consent, push out propaganda, disrupt conversations and deliver threats," according to Khashoggi’s close friend Iyad el-Baghdadi. El-Baghdadi traces how Arabic-language Twitter, once a wildly popular "tool of free expression for citizens" has become "a weapon of social control for Arab dictators."
Muhammed Saud is the poster boy of the softer side of this new mechanism of obedience to Saudi rulers’ messaging.
Clearly, while the Saudi regime continues to muzzle free speech, it actively promotes voices compatible with its own policy goals; in this case, removing the Palestinian hurdle from the path of normalization.
Israel should be warned: becoming bedfellows with Saudi Arabia on such fake foundations has the potential to exacerbate anti-Israeli sentiment across the Middle East, and lead Palestinians to an explosion, should they feel cornered and left behind.
Palestinian activists should also beware of falling into the Saudi troll trap. They shouldn’t allow themselves to be provoked into retaliating with undifferentiated anti-Saudi sentiment; that would be a counter-productive backlash that only plays into the hands of the Saudi regime and its characterization of "monstrous" Palestinians.
Ignore the Saudi trolls - and let fire eat itself up, when it finds nothing else to eat. Don’t bring the Palestinian cause down to their level.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2
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