As mass uprisings in Arab states continue, the Israeli government and its neoconservative supporters in the U.S. have tried to convince the world that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians has nothing to do with the revolts. While it would be disingenuous to claim that Palestine drives the revolts, it’s equally disingenuous to claim that Palestine doesn’t factor at all in to the uprisings, or that Palestine is not a chief concern for Arabs all over.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made the claim today. Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Lieberman said: “The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the main issue, not the main problem…I don’t see linkage between Israel-Palestine and unrest in Egypt, Bahrain or Egypt and Libya.”
With the world focused on the political earthquake reverberating from Egypt and Tunisia to Libya, Yemen, and even to Iran, it is only fitting that the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss a topic that appears in virtually none of the protest banners waving over Middle East capitals — Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. In light of current events, the mere convening of a Security Council meeting on this topic underscores the psychological, let alone geographic, distance between Turtle Bay and the Middle East.
The facts, though, don’t fit that narrative. Egypt’s uprising is the obvious case to examine, given its major role in Israel/Palestine.
The roots of the Egyptian uprising can be found, in part, in the activism that arose in Egypt during the Second Intifada in Palestine, according to Egyptian blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy. And during the Egyptian revolution, the fact of Hosni Mubarak’s collaboration with Israel was blasted by activists. Defaced pictures of Mubarak, with a Star of David around his head, emerged. Signs and chants urging Mubarak to “go to Tel Aviv” where “they like him” were seen and heard. Last Friday, millions of Egyptians chanted, “To Jerusalem we are heading, Martyrs in the millions.” To top it all off, activists in both Gaza and Egypt are organizing for a joint march to the Rafah border to call for an end to the blockade.
The relevance of Palestine to the uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are harder to measure. Still, popular sentiment in these countries is squarely against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Polling data on the Middle East confirms this.
Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center makes the case that Palestine matters deeply in an intriguing article that concludes that “there is no issue which has the resonance or the potential to create uproar across Arab borders at the same time as the Palestine issue”:
So, perhaps it doesn’t matter that Tunisia isn’t Egypt, or Yemen, or Bahrain. They are, after all, all Arab. And, something in that common denominator was significant enough to tie very different states together, even in their responses to domestic opposition over time. What could that possibly be?
Michael Hudson, in a seminal book on Arab politics which discusses the question of regime legitimacy may lend us a clue. He writes that “the single most delegitimizing factor” for some Arab regimes “has been their consistent failure to match words with deeds on the Palestine issue.”
It has long been known that opposition groups in Arab states have often criticized their regimes for the inability to deliver on the pan-Arab cause of Palestine. This criticism takes different forms and sometimes targets regimes for their direct cooperation with Israel or for their cooperation with Israel’s biggest ally, the United States.
So it should come as no surprise that protestors in Cairo were chanting “La li Mubarak La li Suleiman hadol ‘omala il Amrikaan” (No to Mubarak and No to Suleiman, these are traitors for the Americans) or “Al Quds Raheen, Shuhada bil Malayeen” (To Jerusalem we will go, Martyrs in the Millions). See the video here. In turn, regimes have also tightened security and targeted opposition preemptively when the Israel-Palestine conflict incurs extraordinarily violent episodes.
This is not to say that Palestine is the only pan-Arab issue – certainly there is great angst about the American-led war and the ongoing occupation of Iraq – but Iraq is often viewed through a sectarian lens in the Arab world, whereas Arabs across borders, regardless of sect or background, feel a national and emotional commitment to Palestine…
Certainly, I would not go so far as to say that the revolution in Tunisia or Egypt or the uprisings taking place across the Arab world were immediate reactions to anything going on in Palestine. Each of these different revolutions had their ignition moments. Rather, Palestine is a central Arab issue often adopted by opposition groups across the Arab world, whether for self-interested or altruistic purposes, and has been for the better part of a century. The dynamics between states and opposition groups over time, which often ebbed and flowed in response to the dynamics in Palestine, played a significant role in revealing the true nature of regimes as police states, ultimately turning the people against them.
Israel and its neoconservative friends don’t want to hear this. Erasing the Palestine question out of the picture deflects attention away from Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine. But it seems that, to understand the Arab uprisings, one must also understand the staying power of the Palestinian question.