An Arab perspective on the Gaza War after six months of conflict

Israel’s friends are falling away, its army cannot claim victory, its major ally is losing patience, and its diplomatic isolation has never been so stark. For Arab states, who fear an assault on Rafah, the time is now.

A woman reacts as she inspects damages at Al Shifa Hospital after Israeli forces withdrew.
A woman reacts as she inspects damages at Al Shifa Hospital after Israeli forces withdrew.

An Arab perspective on the Gaza War after six months of conflict

Since the start of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has sought to stop three things and start one.

It has sought to stop the fighting and get aid to the Palestinians, stop the displacement of Palestinians, and stop the conflict from escalating to neighbouring nations.

Finally, it has sought to start a peace initiative to end the occupation and establish a sovereign Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, within a transparent and specified timeframe.

From the beginning, the Kingdom has been proactive in building Arab and Islamic unity around these goals.

It hosted an exceptional Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh last November, with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan spearheading efforts with Arab delegations globally to achieve these ends.

Arabs’ Gaza successes

It has had some success. It is clear, for instance, that Arab nations have blocked Israel's attempts to displace Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt.

Any such plan seems to have now been binned, as it faced worldwide condemnation, including from the United States, Israel's staunch ally in the Security Council, despite initial US attempts to support it at the start of the Gaza offensive.

The visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Cairo during the conflict's early days will not soon be forgotten, after offering his proposal for Egypt to host Palestinian refugees until the cessation of hostilities.

The Kingdom, in collaboration with its Arab counterparts, has also managed to avert the escalation of conflict despite limited clashes in southern Lebanon and Yemen.

Arab nations have blocked Israel's attempts to displace Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt. Any such plan seems to have now been binned.

Nevertheless, the potential for escalation persists, as limited confrontations could erupt into full-scale wars if any involved party deems it advantageous to do so.

To some extent, it can be said that Arab efforts have been successful in attaining goals that enjoy global consensus and support from the United States.

However, other Arab objectives have met with opposition or reluctance in Washington.

Arabs' Gaza failures

In other areas, Arab nations have not achieved success, most notably in their failure to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The effect is that today, there is a famine spreading among Palestinians, particularly in northern Gaza.

The United Nations has reported 27 fatalities attributed to starvation, but more than 80% of Gaza's population are facing death as Israel starves them.

A Palestinian child suffering from malnutrition receives treatment at al-Awda health centre.

Israeli forces killing Palestinian civilians near the Kuwait Roundabout north of Gaza City as they sought limited aid supplies just illustrates how dire the situation has become.

There were more harrowing scenes when Palestinians drowned as they sought to reach aid boxes that had been air-dropped and landed in the sea.

These events have shocked not only Arab nations but the world, and stems from US reluctance to press the Israelis into permitting the mountain of Arab aid sat waiting to enter through the Rafah crossing, despite saying they would do so.

Elusive resolutions

Arab nations have also been unsuccessful in stopping Israeli aggression in Gaza.

The US vetoed three Security Council resolutions on 18 October 2023, 8 December 2023, and 20 February 2024. In each, Arab countries called for an immediate ceasefire.

Even when the US abstained, allowing a ceasefire resolution to pass during the holy month of Ramadan on 24 March, the resolution was non-binding because it did not fall under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

Had it fallen under Chapter VII, it would have allowed member states to enforce the resolution, including with the use of force, if there was non-compliance.

Its lack of effect was highlighted by the White House itself which, instead of pressing for Israel's adherence, sent its officials out to tour the TV and radio studios.

Damage in the area around Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital after the Israeli military withdrew on 1 April 2024.

They were there to rationalise the US position and reassure Israel's supporters that the abstention was harmless.

Dan Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel with close connections to President Biden, reinforced the consistent support from President Biden towards Israel in an opinion piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Titled 'Lover's rebuke,' Kurtzer argued that Biden's support for Israel had been emotional, financial, political, and military, claiming that no other US president had shown such steadfast commitment.

He contended that the US abstention was a protective measure for Israel, which is facing growing global isolation. Rather than criticism, Kurtzer said Biden merited gratitude from the Israeli public for his unwavering support.

Assessing next moves

Arab nations are currently facing the critical challenge of preventing the invasion by an occupying state into the Gazan city of Rafah, home to more than 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from northern and central regions.

Rafah is relatively small, only 55 sq. km in size, so an assault could lead to significant casualties given the density of its population.

Addressing Gaza's humanitarian needs, stopping Rafah's invasion, and seeking an end to the current conflict are top agenda items for Arab leaders today.

Hopes of success in these efforts have been buoyed by an unprecedented global consensus on these issues. Diplomatically, Israel is effectively isolated.  

Addressing Gaza's humanitarian needs, stopping Rafah's invasion, and seeking an end to the current conflict are top of Arab leaders' agendas. 

With significant geographical and demographic leverage, the Arab world plays a crucial yet quiet role in countering Israel and its allies.

It now seems clear that Israel's war on Gaza requires Arab states to re-evaluate their strategic positions, both regionally and globally.

This would be with a view to achieving the overarching goal shared by Riyadh and other Arab capitals, which is to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese territories.

Ending occupation

While the Palestinian cause often takes precedence, the ongoing occupation of other Arab territories remains a critical issue. Resolving them is vital for regional stability.

The recent conflict has underscored the belief among many Arab states that normalisation of relations with Israel should only occur after Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian lands.

Palestinians inspect damages at Al Shifa Hospital after Israeli forces withdrew following a two-week operation.

Occupation is the control and administration of another's territory by an external power. Establishing economic, political, and cultural ties with the occupier will not address it.

While such an approach may help to resolve conflicts involving borders, resources, or ideological differences, ending an occupation typically requires strategic shifts by the occupier, or effective resistance from the occupied.

This distinction underlines the complexity of the occupation issue and the necessity of a focused strategy to address it.

Israel's occupation of Palestinian land is very different from other instances of occupation, however. Unlike 'conventional occupation', as seen around the world in years past, Israel's bears the characteristics of settler-colonialism.

This seeks the land while disregarding the ownership rights of its people. Israel does not recognise the Palestinians as the legitimate owners of the land being occupied.

Instead, Israel asserts that Palestinians are simply 'Arabs' who can live anywhere in the Arab world, anywhere but historic Palestine, "from the river to the sea," which Israel sees as its own Torah land.

This form of occupation does not end with the assimilation of the occupied territory into its surroundings, but rather by occupier's isolation by neighbours, international pressure, and resistance from those who are occupied.

Diplomatic leverage

It is crucial to underscore the validity of the Kingdom's stance regarding normalisation of relations with Israel: that this should be contingent on Israel ending its occupation.

This position has been consistently advocated by the Saudi Foreign Minister, including in talks with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

Hence, much of the West has recently said that the time has come for the implementation of a two-state solution.

Many now feel that this 75-year-old conflict cannot be allowed to continue forever. The instability it engenders in the Middle East and globally is significant and ongoing.

Building on that, the Kingdom and its counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council revealed on 28 March their vision for security in the Gulf region.

The member states said they wanted to activate the Arab Initiative to find a just solution, end Israeli occupation, establish a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, and end the current fighting.

The group also emphasised the importance of ending "attempts at demographic change, erasing Arab identity, and Judaising Islamic and Christian sanctities."

Many feel the 75-year-old conflict cannot go on forever. The instability it engenders in the Middle East and globally is significant and ongoing.

In their statement, they affirmed that "the continued blockage of prospects for a solution is a fundamental factor for destabilising the region and a justification for spreading extremism, hatred, and violence".

It conveyed a twin message to the US and Europe: that achieving security and peace hinges on Israel ending its occupation of Palestinian land, and that doing so is a necessary precursor to fully integrating Israel into the region.

Israel losing friends

One of the more notable strategic shifts is the profound impact that Israel's assault on Gaza has had on public opinion in American, Canadian, and European societies.

Today, Israel is both isolated and accused of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinians.

Advocates for boycotting and penalising Israel are suddenly being taken seriously, with Israel no longer the 'sacred cow' it once was.

In the US, more than 55% of Americans now want the war to end and for Israel to face the consequences of its actions.

This marks a seismic and unprecedented shift in American public opinion, of the sort not seen since 1967.

In Canada, which has traditionally been a staunch ally of Israel, the government has gone one further and stopped exporting arms to Tel Aviv.

In terms of legal processes, Ireland has now joined South Africa in a lawsuit filed before the International Court of Justice aimed at prosecuting Israel for committing genocide.

They may soon be joined by European nations such as Spain, Belgium, and Norway.

Public sentiment in Europe is firmly against both Israeli actions in Gaza and Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Although German and British leaders first jumped to Israel's defence, they are now facing significant pressure to copy Canada and halt arms exports to Israel or, at the very least, to tie such exports to Israel's adherence to international law.

US-Israel alliance

In recent weeks, as pictures of starving children emerge, the US has also sensed its own growing diplomatic isolation and has recognised Israel as a liability.

Realising this contributed to its abstention on the UN Security Council ceasefire vote in March, which led an Israeli team to cancel their visit to Washington.

Even the US Congress, in which both main parties have supported Israel unequivocally for decades, there is a small but growing chorus of discontent.

Several politicians in the Chamber have taken to openly advocating for economic and military assistance to Israel to be tied to it upholding the rights of Palestinians.

A Palestinian child suffering from malnutrition receives treatment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

Alongside this, the rift between the White House and the Israeli cabinet has widened.

On the issue of future governance, for example, the US said the Palestinian Authority had to return to govern Gaza. This was rejected outright by Israel.

Likewise, the US opposes any annexation of Gaza or parts of it, yet Israel explicitly seeks to establish a security buffer in the region.

Furthermore, the US has said no to an assault on Rafah, fearing tens of thousands of casualties, but Israel has insisted that it is going in, regardless of what anyone thinks.

In yet another area, the White House has urged Israel to proceed with a prisoner exchange, which Israel has obstructed.

The American perspective is grounded in the belief that a military solution in Gaza is impractical. Instead, it pushes for a political solution, which resonates with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's advocacy since the onset of war.

The real picture

Now is the time to leverage global consensus end the war, end the occupation of Palestinian territories, and advance peace and stability in the Middle East.

Despite six months' of heavy bombardment, Israel still cannot claim victory in Gaza. It has not disarmed the armed factions, it has not secured the release of captives, and Israeli residents in both the north and south are yet to return home.

Having killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and destroyed much of the Gaza Strip's infrastructure, Israel's aspirations have still not been met.

This situation reinforces the belief that Israel's strategic advantages can be challenged. Importantly, it must not emerge victorious from this war.

Israel's war on Gaza is not merely a confrontation with armed groups. It is a comprehensive assault on the Palestinian people as a whole, and on the broader prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Having killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and destroyed much of the Gaza Strip's infrastructure, Israel's aspirations have still not been met. 

Israeli victory would not only solidify its control over the West Bank, Arab Jerusalem, and Gaza, it could also lead to the further humiliation and displacement of Palestinians, and to territorial annexations.

Unchallenged, Israel may expand its military operations into Lebanon, further assert its presence in the Syrian Golan Heights and undermine the quest for regional stability and peace essential for development and prosperity.

Additionally, an Israeli victory could diminish international efforts towards ending the occupation and achieving a just solution, because it is a law of nature that victors tend to consolidate their gains.

Preventing Israel from achieving victory is vital if it is to be compelled towards a genuine and lasting peace in the region.

Peace in the Middle East is not merely a preference. It is an imperative.

True peace cannot be achieved until the occupying state sees that, to ensure its own security and survival, it must change.

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