Arab attitudes are hardening against Israel

A child sits with his head in his hands as people salvage belongings from the rubble of a damaged building following strikes on Rafah, Gaza Strip, 12 November 2023
Ordinary Arabs and their leaders have expressed dismay at what they call 'Western double standards' about the Gaza conflict (image: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

The prospect of normalised relations between Israel and Arab nations is fading as public anger at Israel's on-going bombardment of Gaza grows. Could it lead to radicalisation or violent extremism in the Middle East?

By Cathrin Schaer

The young movie director in Jordan made his disillusionment clear. "I no longer want to speak their language, watch their films, or even follow their celebrities," Omar Rammal, 26, wrote in a recent Instagram post. "They are all the same to me," the award-winning director, with almost 800,000 followers, expressed his feelings about the so-called Western world. "Their hearts are like stones. They see us as less than human."

Rammal is of Palestinian descent, so he is perhaps closer to the current conflict in Gaza than many in the Middle East. But he is far from alone in these kinds of opinions.

Since the militant-Islamist Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, the Israel Defense Forces have been bombing the Gaza Strip. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organisation by Germany, the European Union, the United States and others. Israel has also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and fighting is on-going.

A crowd watches as people look for survivors in a severely damaged building after an Israeli air strike on Rafah, Gaza Strip, 14 November 2023
Over 19,000 Palestinians have been killed so far and US officials suggest the death toll is likely higher because people buried under rubble are still missing (image: Hatem Ali/AP/picture alliance)

Hearts and minds

The non-stop stream of pictures coming out of Gaza over the past two months has horrified many. And the mounting death toll seems to be rapidly changing attitudes in the Middle East, a survey by the US-based research organisation Arab Barometer has found.

On 7 October, the research organisation was half way through one of its regular opinion surveys in Tunisia. It continued the other half of the study as Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip intensified. The researchers found that "in just 20 days, Tunisians' views on the world shifted in ways that rarely happen, even over the course of a few years."

They shared a number of conclusions in an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine last week. Israel was even less popular than it had been with Tunisians previously, as were any nations that supported Israel. That included the United States but also Saudi Arabia, which had been moving towards normalisation with Israel.

That study only applies to Tunisia, but comments from senior politicians around the Middle East appear to confirm that the opinions are widespread. 

In mid-November, while meeting with EU officials, Jordan's King Abdullah II said that the Gaza conflict was going to fuel radicalisation in the region for decades. A few days earlier, an Arab foreign minister told a BBC journalist he was worried what the conflict was doing to young people in his country. "They watch what is happening in Gaza on TV and they are increasingly angry," he said.

"We know from all our research that justice, and perception of justice, is a key driver in radicalisation," the head of a peace-building organisation in Jordan told Newlines magazine earlier this month.

Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy said he believes there are similar feelings in his homeland. There had already been some criticism of Germany for exporting arms to Egypt's authoritarian government, el-Hamalawy, who is also a researcher and activist who writes a regular newsletter on Egyptian politics, told DW.

"But Germany's unconditional support for the on-going Israeli assault on Gaza has made Egyptians even angrier," he said. "People in Egypt and the Arab world were also shocked to see police in Berlin apparently racially profiling Arabs in the streets and crushing demonstrations – as though it was a non-Western dictatorship."

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Potential for long-term diplomatic fall-out

Could the apparent hardening of attitudes have a longer-term impact? Opinion polls regularly showed that the Palestinian issue had huge resonance in the Middle East even before the current conflict began. More recent polling has suggested Arab citizens were always considerably less enthusiastic about normalising relations with Israel than their leaders.

"No regime, be it non-democratic or otherwise, is completely insulated from public accountability," Salma al-Shami, research director at the Arab Barometer project, told DW. "While public opinion might not have as much sway in non-democracies, it nonetheless makes it much more costly or difficult for regimes to outright go against it." This means that in the future, the issue of Palestinian statehood is less likely to be sidelined. 

The Arab Barometer research also found that Tunisians had developed a more positive opinion of the Iranian leadership, which supports Hamas.

Could anger turn to violence?

In recent years, respondents to the Arab Barometer's surveys have been more likely to renounce the use of violence to further political causes.

But according to the organisation's most recent research, this seems to have changed in Tunisia. Before 7 October, two-thirds of Tunisians favoured a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. Only 6% chose the "other" category, within which most supported armed resistance. However, since 7 October, the latter category has risen to 36%. 

While Tunisians are too far away from the conflict to do much about that, if attitudes are changing the same way in countries closer to Israel, it could become problematic, researchers said. 

Whether those changes in attitude lead to violent extremism or terrorist acts in Europe or the United States remains unclear.

Earlier this month, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said societal polarisation was increasing the risk of violence in Europe. The Gaza conflict has caused emotional divisions in Europe and the US, as well as a rise in racistanti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts and speech.

Could Hamas attack targets in Europe?

If its history is anything to go by, Hamas is unlikely to commit terrorist acts in Europe. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence and others, Hamas has not committed any terrorist acts outside of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Recently, there were some arrests in Germany and the Netherlands of people thought to be linked to Hamas and suspected "of planning attacks" in Europe. Such an attack, if it went ahead, would likely have been the first time as Hamas' concerns have been primarily regionally limited – unlike extremist groups such as al-Qaida or the "Islamic State," which have international aims.

A crowd of people wave Tunisian but mostly Palestinian flags and chant slogans as they walk down a street during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, 15 October 2023
Tunisia's National Salvation Front, a party which opposes Tunisia's increasingly authoritarian leader, has organised protests in support of Palestinians (image: Hasan Mrad/Zumapress/picture alliance)

Recruiting extremists?

In the past, the "Islamic State" group has used what it calls "Western double standards" to recruit new members.

Groups with a more global outlook, like al-Qaida and the "Islamic State", already call on individuals to carry out attacks against Jews in the short term, said Tanya Mehra, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague. "The longer the conflict continues, they could indeed recruit more members," she told DW. 

In fact, all kinds of groups are trying to exploit the conflict for their own ends, Mehra added: from far-right groups that use it to fuel anti-immigration sentiment and anti-Semitism to the alleged involvement of Russia in the painting of Stars of David on Parisian walls in November, as well as other nations far from the actual conflict.

"We're also seeing the conflict lead to increased radicalisation and violent extremism in south and south-east Asia," Mehra noted.

Observers have said far-right groups in India are using the conflict to demonise Muslims there.

While increased radicalisation is a concern, the Arab Barometer's al-Shami said it detracts from the issue of human rights for Palestinians.

"Palestine doesn't just matter because of security concerns," she said. "Palestine matters because human rights matter and justice matters and self-determination matters. In their attitudes and their actions, Arab publics – be it in their domestic struggles or their regional ones – have constantly affirmed that these professed core values deserve more than lip service."

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2023