Opinion

For Arab Regimes, Palestine Is Old News. Now, It's All About Iran

The Arab regimes' exploitation and betrayal of Palestine has a long history. Now, they're framing the Palestinian cause as a burden, and a dangerous distraction from Iran

A girl covering her face with the Palestinian koofiyyeh scarf looks on during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip February 1, 2019
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

"A wedding in Warsaw": That's how Qatar's former prime minster described the recent love-in between Arab leaders and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin at the Trump-administrated brokered Middle East "Peace Summit." Hamad Al-Thani went to note that it was a wedding announcement that succeeded a long engagement.

Arab regimes – who have long believed the way to the White House's heart goes through Jerusalem – are now acting on that recognition. Keen to gain leverage in the Trump administration, and eager for the impunity for their criminal conduct that Israel has long enjoyed, they're hastening to sit on Netanyahu’s lap.

And now, there's a perfect alibi to their previous facade of anti-normalization: the threat of Iran which, in the eyes of many Sunni regimes, necessitates even closer coordination with Israel.

Saudi's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir arrives for a family photo during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019
\ KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS

However, Arab regimes’ exploitation and undermining of the Palestinian cause, and their secret cooperation with Israel and its interests, date back to when Israel was first created in 1948 - and even before.

After the Arab betrayal of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, Palestinians went to Emir Faisal ibn Hussein, who headed the Arab delegation to the Versailles peace conference, and asked him to refer to Palestine as "Southern Syria," to include it as part of the Syrian-Iraqi kingdom that Faisal demanded in return for his cooperation with the Allies.

Faisal was entirely uninterested in the request and instead opted to partner with the head of the British Zionist Federation, Chaim Weizmann, accepting the Balfour Declaration to gain stronger terms in his negotiations with the allies.

On the eve of Israel’s birth, the armies of Jordan and Egypt captured the West Bank and Gaza, trying at best to secure their own borders to prevent the expansion of the newborn state into their own territories.

Then, to prevent being dragged into further confrontations with Israel, Arab armies disarmed about 24,000 Palestinian rebels, dissolved both the Palestinian "High Arab Committee" and the "Sacred Jihad" resistance organization formed by the Palestinian leader, Amin al-Husseini, who was then put under house arrest in Egypt. Britain requested the arrest, no doubt influenced by the Mufti's cooperation with the Nazis in WWII, but it was a useful pretext for King Farouk to smother Palestinian nationalism.

Indeed, aborting the birth of Palestinian resistance was justified by the Arab world's long-standing slogan: that the liberation of Palestine was a pan-Arab responsibility, and not a Palestinian one. That rhetorical solidarity should be kept in mind today, when the Palestinian cause is suddenly being framed as a burden.

Such promise brought enormous profits to authoritarian Arab regimes, who for decades enjoyed unimaginable plunder and exercised brutality against their people, silencing popular demands for a better life by repeating the constant refrain that Palestine was their number one priority. This strategy of diversion earned its champions no small measure of loyalty and sympathy amongst their pro-Palestinian populations, who identified with the call for a "free Jerusalem."

However, aside from slogans, Palestinians – although warmly praised amongst Arab populations – were treated officially as something of less than human value by Arab regimes, who confined them to being "stateless refugees."

The Egyptian regime, after capturing  Gaza in 1948, refused to annex it, but instead, fenced it off and installed an occupying military force to rule it under governor Mahmoud Riad, who then give up a third of its territory, around 200 square kilometers, to Israel in 1950.

Then in 1959, Egypt again disarmed Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza, and arrested hundreds of Gazan activists and unionists as part of its crackdown on communist factions. When the PLO was formed, shortly after in 1964, it was designed to contain Palestinian activism, and a Palestinian loyal to the Arab regimes, Ahmed Al-Shuqari, was installed as its chairman.

A Palestinian protester wears a head band as he takes part in a demonstration near the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on February 22, 2019
AFP

Meanwhile, another blow to the Palestinian cause came from Saudi Arabia, whose king, it is reported, sent an official letter to the U.S. in 1966, requesting the Lyndon Johnson administration to encourage Israel to occupy Gaza, Sinai, and the West Bank in order to weaken Egyptian troops fighting against Saudi interests in Yemen.

After the 1967 war, Arab regimes again gradually disarmed and expelled Palestinian resistance groups in Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The armed groups based themselves in Lebanon until 1982.

During and after the 1973 war, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal did show an unusual spirit of pro-Palestinian Arab solidarity, by instigating the oil embargo and encouraging Egypt's Sadat to keep fighting to the end.

But for Sadat, the real purpose of the war wasn't the liberation of Palestine at all, but rather the restoration of Egypt's territory in Sinai. Sadat told Peres in 1978 that Israeli Prime Minister Begin had offered to return Gaza to Egypt, if Israel could annex the Israeli-established town of Yamit in the Sinai. Sadat laughed, and said: "You can keep that damned place for yourself." 

If undermining the armed Palestinian resistance wasn’t enough, Arab regimes also worked to obstruct the Palestinian pursuit of peace with Israel.

For instance, in 1973, senior PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas secretly assigned PLO members; Said Hammami, Issam al-Sartawi and Naim Khadir, to open channels for dialogue, peace-talks and co-existence with Israel, known as the "Paris meetings." Arab regimes were strongly displeased by the move.

Abbas recalled recently how this initiative was widely denounced as "treason," when he attended the National Committee Summit in Egypt in 1977. Abbas told of droves of angry people who approached him to know "Who’s the traitor contacting the Zionists?" Hammami and Sartawi were both assassinated by Abu Nidal, the infamous terrorist, and salaried loyalist of Iraq and Syria, in 1978 and 1983. 

The irony is that Sartawi had actually sat in the same room in a internationalist socialist conference as Shimon Peres the day he was killed; Abu Nidal’s men were instructed to "kill the Israeli collaborator," and not the Israeli.

Palestinians, Israelis and foreign protesters protest a newly opened Israeli highway near Jerusalem that segregates Israeli and Palestinian traffic. Jan. 23, 2019
Majdi Mohammed,AP

When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, many Arab regimes, from the Gulf to Syria, denounced Yasser Arafat as a traitor, and pushed a media campaign that demonized his pursuit of peace with Israel.

This was unsurprising, since the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict benefited many Arab dictators.

In 1991, Saddam Hussein, for instance, during his occupation of Kuwait, bombed Tel Aviv and vouched to liberate Palestine. Hussein hoped that Israeli retaliation would ignite Arab solidarity with Iraq.

His talk of a jihad for Palestine misled many Palestinians into framing Hussein as the new liberating Saladdin. A significant proportion of the Palestinians who had participated in the First Intifada's mass non-violent demonstrations of the, and pivoted towards the violent "armed resistance" that gained ground in the 1990’s.

The 2011 Arab Spring was a wake-up call to younger Arabs, who became more aware of their regimes' exploitation of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli rhetoric and its function as an outlet for popular anger to distract from the internal crises of their authoritarian states.

Arab dictators long claimed to be the guardians of the Palestinian cause but paid little or no real attention to it, aside from consistently blaming all of their internal failures on "Israeli conspiracies." But that strategy now offers diminishing returns. Luckily, there's a new mobilizing cause. These days, the all-purpose scapegoat is Iran.

During the Warsaw summit, U.S. Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt tweeted that "insisting" on the Palestinian cause as the "region’s sole and #1 priority" impedes the national interests of Arab regimes - namely, combating Iran. 

But Arab states have never let the Palestinian cause dictate their national interests, and the idea that it was ever a cardinal regional issue was a rhetorical and mobilization strategy only. The long Arab exploitation, repression and undermining of the Palestinian cause has, though, contributed significantly to impeding the long-due realization of Palestinian statehood.

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