As the Israeli bombardment of Gaza has intensified in recent days, large protests have erupted across the Arab and Muslim worlds in support of the Palestinian cause, a reminder of the profound resonance the issue still holds for many.
That popular outpouring has put new pressures on Arab leaders, many of whom have invested little effort in recent years to support the Palestinians or advance their political or economic interests.
Now, those leaders must navigate the pursuit of what they consider their own countries’ interests while indicating to their people that they, too, are supporting the Palestinian cause.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was relegated to the background, partly because of apathy and partly because of a feeling of helplessness that was pervasive in the Arab world,” said Lina Khatib, the director of the SOAS Middle East Institute at the University of London.
The climate shifted noticeably after Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza, attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7 and killed roughly 1,400 people. That unleashed a barrage of Israeli airstrikes on the crowded and impoverished Gaza Strip that Gaza health authorities say have killed thousands. The violence has displaced about half of Gaza’s population of more than 2 million Palestinians, according to the United Nations.
“The tragic events have shown that it remains at the heart of Middle Eastern politics and a major concern for people across the region,” Ms. Khatib said of the Palestinian struggle.
For decades, support for the idea of an independent Palestinian state was a rare issue that Arabs in different countries and across political divides could easily agree on. But in recent years, the focus on the Palestinian issue had waned for many reasons. Infighting between Palestinian factions and the absence of peace talks with Israel for many years seemed to leave no path for progress.
And many Arab countries were caught up in their own internal issues. Over the past decade, uprisings and civil wars shook Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and other countries; Iraq struggled to defeat the jihadists of the Islamic State; and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates focused on dramatic plans for economic diversification while struggling with security threats from Iran and Yemen.
The Palestinian predicament, however, remained dear to many people across the region who viewed it as a distillation of Arab suffering and humiliation and Israel as a prime example of the forces seeking to keep the Arabs down, with generous political and financial support from Western countries like the United States.
The region’s autocratic leaders have long allowed pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activism as a release valve for people to vent frustrations that extend to their own failures to develop just, thriving societies.
Recent diplomatic steps by four Arab countries — Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates — to normalize relations with Israel, in deals known collectively as the Abraham Accords, were seen as puncturing the idea that Israel would remain isolated in the Arab world as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved, especially if Saudi Arabia followed suit.
But those accords did little to change popular sentiment toward Israel, just as Israel’s decades-old peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan never resulted in warmer feelings among their populations.
“People across the Arab world see in the continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a continuation of the victimization of the Arab region at large by Israel and its Western allies,” Ms. Khatib said. “And even though some Arab countries took steps toward bilateral normalization with Israel, this did not reflect the wide popular sentiment in those countries.”
One lethal strike in particular in the nearly two weeks of bombardments galvanized outrage over the treatment of Palestinians.
On Tuesday, an explosion struck a Gaza hospital and the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory immediately blamed an Israeli airstrike and said at least 500 people had been killed. The ministry later changed that figure to hundreds, and Israel strongly denied later on Tuesday night that it had conducted an airstrike on the hospital.
Israel’s initial denial, however had little bearing on the reaction across the Arab world: the episode sparked fury. It was widely seen as the most recentexample of Israel’s reckless disregard for Palestinian lives, an act requiring an Arab response.
Images taken at the scene of the hospital blast the following day did not immediately clarify what had blown up at the hospital and why. Then the United States endorsed Israel’s version of the events, saying early intelligence showed the blast had been caused by a failed rocket launch by Palestinian militants inside Gaza.
The blast had united Arab populations and their leaders, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist from the Emirates, wrote on the platform X, formerly Twitter.
“It is important to preserve these angry, unified Arab positions against the Israeli aggression and for the steadfastness of the Palestinian people,” he wrote.
The next day, King Abdullah of Jordan, one of the United States’ closest Arab allies, canceled a meeting with President Joe Biden. Saudi Arabia, another important Arab partner of the United States, issued a blistering statement criticizing Israel for the hospital strike and casting a chill over the Biden administration’s efforts to strike a normalization deal between the Saudis and Israel that had seemed to be in the works before the latest round of warfare erupted.
On Friday, hundreds of Egyptians joined a pro-Palestinian rally organized by the Egyptian government. The government had called for a mass demonstration to prove that “the Egyptian people support in every possible means the steadfastness of the Palestinian people against the aggression of the barbarian occupation state,” meaning Israel.
To be sure, Arab leaders have their own reasons for riding the wave of anti-Israeli anger, and most of those reasons have little to do with Palestinian rights.
Much of Jordan’s population is ethnically Palestinian, which would have made it hard for the king to stand next to Mr. Biden after the hospital blast and the American president’s full-throated support for Israel, analysts said. And Egypt is alarmed by calls from some Israeli officials that Gazans be allowed to flee to Egypt, fearing they will never return to Gaza.
Still it remains unclear whether this outrage will last and lead to real political change.
On the popular level, there are, in fact, multiple Palestinian causes, with some calling for an independent Palestinian state next to Israel, others advocating one state shared by Israelis and Palestinians, and still others seeking Israel’s complete destruction.
On the political side, too, progress for Palestinians faces multiple barriers that can’t be cleared with protests and anger. These include deep enmity between the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, and an Israeli government that has shown no interest for many years in restarting peace talks.
“Every avenue for resolving the conflict is being blocked, and this new military attack will create all kinds of atrocities,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist for Al Monitor, an online publication.
Still, he has found encouragement in seeing the Palestinian cause back in the spotlight.
“I don’t know if it will turn into political action, but it keeps the issue alive and passes it along to the new generation,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Now it is your responsibility to carry on the issue.’”