The Arab Reaction to Operation Cast Lead

Written by Ephraim Kam

January 6, 2009
Ephraim Kam
INSS Insight No. 86
As Operation Cast Lead unfolded during its second week, demonstrations of outrage and protest against the campaign and the attack on the Palestinians marked the Arab and Muslim worlds. Large street demonstrations, media broadcasts and publications, and government spokespeople and public figures called repeatedly for an immediate end both to the operation and the siege of the Gaza Strip.

Demonstrations in support of Hamas were encouraged particularly by Iran and Syria as well as by the Hizbollah in Lebanon. However, they were prominent also in Egypt, where they were organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Jordan, apparently organized by Islamic and Palestinian elements. The demonstrations aim to pressure the regimes to harden their stance towards Israel (and in both countries there are calls for abrogating the peace treaties with Israel). Thus far the demonstrations have not gotten out of control, yet out of concern that the internal situation might deteriorate, both regimes have seen fit to criticize the Israeli operation publicly and allow the masses to express their anger.

Particularly noteworthy among the Arab governments is the Egyptian regime. Egypt has condemned the Israeli action, demanded that the operation cease immediately and without preconditions, and made it clear that its goal is to exert international pressure on Israel to stop the operation and open the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel. However, Egypt has also explicitly placed responsibility for the deterioration of the situation on Hamas, and has rejected Hamas' demand to open the Rafiah crossing unless it is controlled by the PA and European observers, in the spirit of the 2005 crossings agreement. Mubarak maintains that aid must not enter Gaza without Israeli supervision. The pro-government media in Egypt also blamed Hamas that as an Iranian satellite caused the deterioration, and PA president Abu Mazen, who visited Cairo last week, echoed the condemnation of Hamas.

So far, the governments of Jordan and Saudi Arabia have refrained - seemingly because of internal sensitivities - from following in Egypt's footsteps and publicly castigating Hamas, although presumably they too are critical of its conduct. Indeed, remarks by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister at an Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo carried an undertone critical of Hamas.

In contrast, support for Hamas is led by Iran, Syria, and Hizbollah. Hizbollah even attacked Egypt for helping Israel, and has called for internal pressure, including from the military, to force the Egyptian regime to support Hamas.

To date, no effective joint Arab action to deal with the crisis has been formulated. The Arab League foreign ministers deemed it sufficient to agree to a joint effort to pass a Security Council resolution calling for an end to the operation, and sent a delegation of eight Arab foreign ministers to New York. It is doubtful whether these efforts will yield any real results, and the Syrian president's call for an Arab summit has so far met with no response.


There is no doubt that most of the Arab governments, certainly the more moderate among them, take exception to Hamas' conduct and are concerned about its control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas is viewed by them as a radical element with ties to Iran that obstructs an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and contributes to regional instability. Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip and the military support it receives from Iran and Hizbollah are seen by the moderate governments as evidence of the strengthening Iran-Shiite Iraq-Syria-Hizbollah axis, and opposed to the moderate Sunni camp. From this perspective, the moderate Arab states find themselves caught between two contradictory considerations: although they cannot admit this publicly, they have an interest in seeing the IDF operation weakening Hamas or perhaps even causing its collapse. However, they see themselves as obligated to extend assistance to the Palestinians in Gaza living under extremely difficult conditions, and this sense of obligation is intensified by the demonstrations in the Arab street.

Above all, Egypt views Hamas as a threat and a rival, particularly because of Hamas' link to the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents the primary threat to the Egyptian regime. The Egyptians are also worried by the possibility of a Hamastan with ties to Iran and Hizbollah on Egypt's border, and identify Iran's fingerprints all over Hamas' conduct. Egypt has no desire for the uncontrolled entry of Hamas activists into its territory, particularly at a time when a worrisome security vacuum has already been created in Sinai, and Hamas creates friction in Egypt-Israel relations. Consequently, Egyptian leaders have made unprecedented blunt statements about Hamas, even as they laid some of the blame on Israel's shoulders. The conditions Mubarak set for Hamas' demand about opening the Rafiah crossing were meant to undermine both Hamas' standing as a legitimate government and the status of the Gaza Strip as an entity separate from the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile the Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis seeks to take advantage of the crisis in order to consolidate its standing as a central influence in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian arena in general, and to persist in fanning the flames of the armed conflict against Israel. This axis also seeks to influence the ceasefire's conditions and to undermine Egypt's standing as the principal Arab element mediating between Hamas and Israel. Because most of the Arab governments oppose Hamas and its activities, the radical axis seeks to influence events by inciting the mobs - sympathetic to the Palestinians and incited by the pictures broadcast from the Gaza Strip - against the moderate governments in order to force them to pressure Israel and come to Hamas' aid.

The inter-Arab differences of opinion again demonstrate the inherent and ongoing weakness of the Arab world, its lack of leadership, and its difficulties in taking joint action. One of the results of this weakness, given also the lack of sympathy for Hamas among most Arab governments, is that Hamas and the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip find themselves under intensive Israeli military pressure without the Arab world able to find a way, at least for now, to help them in any real sense. At the same time, it is possible that the longer the crisis lasts, the more Arab nations will become involved in achieving a ceasefire agreement.

One may also view the weakness of the Arab world in a broader context. In recent years, the radical Arab camp was weakened after Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was toppled and Qaddafi's regime in Libya changed its approach. On the other hand, the moderate Arab nations view themselves as living under a growing threat of the Iran-led radical-Shiite axis. This threat makes it hard for them to formulate a joint plan of action with regard to other issues, such as a response to the Iranian nuclear threat and an active stance with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian political process.

During the Second Lebanon War, the moderate Arab camp thus harbored the unstated expectation that the IDF would deal Hizbollah a harsh blow. Israel disappointed this expectation. Now, this expectation has resurfaced in context of the military confrontation between the IDF and Hamas, i.e., that Hamas suffer a severe blow that will undermine its status in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian arena. If this occurs and as a result of Israeli military success a political process is formulated that will lead to the PA renewing its standing in the Gaza Strip, this will be interpreted as a severe blow to Hamas. In that case, the moderate Arab camp will have achieved success and will be strengthened in face of the radical Shiite axis.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

You are now being logged in using your Facebook credentials