18 November 2012

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


The Gaza conflict adds another high-risk dynamic to the Arab world. Governments face intensified popular pressure to stand up for the Palestinians in an era where Arabs across the region have been demanding more people power.

Egypt and Jordan, the Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel, face particular domestic pressure, while both are also struggling with a precarious economic situation.

The strongest reaction has so far been seen in Jordan, where the crisis in Gaza is rapidly turning up the heat on protests that started last week over rising fuel prices. Jordan is seen by the west as a pillar of moderation when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, having signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Jordan also hosts nearly two million Palestinian refugees, making up one-third of its population. This means any Palestinian conflict immediately resonates on the Jordanian streets.

Jordan has already seen Arab Spring protests, but the king initially took out some of the heat by sacking the prime minister and promising political reforms, including a greater say for elected representatives. Eighteen months later, Jordan has been through three different prime ministers, and the main Islamist opposition plans to boycott elections next January because it says reforms have not gone far enough.

The crisis is also a particular test for the newly-elected government in Egypt, led by president Mohammed Mursi, a longtime Muslim Brotherhood activist. Egypt needs to strike a balance between its ideological opposition to Israel and the religious belief that Jerusalem belongs to Islam and its desire to avoid a conflict with the best-armed country in the Middle East. There is also the concern over damaging its relations with the US, which provides strategically-important military and food aid. The Egyptian prime minister rushed to Gaza to show his support on Friday, including a visit to the family of an 11-year-old baby who died when their house was shelled.

Meanwhile, Syria will try to exploit the crisis to say that the West is showing double standards in condemning violence by Syria while asserting Israel’s right to self defence. While condemning Israel’s actions, Assad will continue to employ the rhetoric of fighting terrorism to justify a crackdown in his own country that began with the slaughter of unarmed democracy activists.

Lebanon has its own worries that the Hezbollah group will lash out at Israel while the latter is distracted in Gaza – as Israel found it hard to fight on both fronts in 2006 – but on balance there seems to be a tacit agreement between both Lebanese factions and outside powers that Lebanon should be kept intact, at least for now.

In the Gulf countries, many quietly wish that Gazan’s had not fired rockets into Israel and think Israel’s response was predictable. But they cannot support the Israeli response. Some in the Gulf think Iran encouraged the recent upsurge in violence to spoil the efforts, led by Qatar, to prise Hamas away from its alliance with Iran. These efforts seek to make Hamas a more moderate force, in return for the Gulf countries breaking the economic and diplomatic siege on the government of Gaza.

These efforts have been all but wrecked. But the upsurge in violence must now refocus international attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had all but dropped off the international policy agenda as governments found so many new developments to deal with in the Middle East. All the issues remain interconnected, and one of the tragedies is it has been too easy to ignore this conflict when violence was not at the top of the headlines.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman.