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Do Arab States Support Palestine?
If you look at a map of countries that recognize Palestine, you’d think most Arab states want an independent Palestine.
This is reflected in the beliefs of their citizens: Most Arabs think the Palestinian cause is their own.
And of course, we see that in the manifestations of support for Palestine on the streets of many Arab countries.1
We’ve seen it again in the recent attacks by Hamas on Israel. Despite the atrocities, many countries have directly supported Hamas, not called it out, or have blamed Israel.
Given all that, you’d think the rulers of Arab countries would be doing everything they can to prop up a Palestinian state. They’re not.
The Abortion of a Nation
In the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Egypt occupied Gaza, and Jordan occupied the West Bank. They could have created Palestinian states, but they didn’t. They incorporated them into their own territories.
This is much less outrageous than it seems.
As far as I know, there was not a single Arab nation-state in the world before the 20th century. We have a hard time understanding this now, but nationalism didn’t really exist until the 1700s, it spread around the world in the 1800s, and exploded in the 1900s during decolonization. After World War II, there were only about 50 countries in the world—about 200 today. In the past, the Muslim world cared more about religion and was ruled by empires. There was little feeling of nationhood.
As ideas of nationalism penetrated the Middle East in the 1900s, there was no clear definition of what region should become a state or belong to another. Remember the plan for an Arab country in the Arabian Peninsula from King Hussein bin Ali:
When the Brits and the French split their areas of influence, local borders started forming. Lebanon/Israel and Syria/Jordan exist today not because they’re fundamentally different (as we saw in Will Israel Be at War?) but because they were split back then by the Sykes-Picot line.
This colonial background is why so many of these borders are straight today. We can specifically see the Sykes-Picot line in the borders of Lebanon/Israel and Syria/Jordan.
In fact, during the Ottoman period, their regions looked vastly different.
Under the Brits, there was no Palestine as we understand it today. There was Mandatory Palestine, which was just an administrative zone that they decided to split from the rest of their region. Let’s imagine what that might have looked like:
What should we call the part of our region on the coast?
Let’s go for Palestine since it’s what the Ottomans called it.
I dunno, it comes from “Philistines”, who were from the southern region of Palestine. Should we also use that label to refer to Phoenicia, Judah, Samaria, Galilee…? Aren’t they going to be angry?
Hmmm… Let’s see, we have a mandate for that region. Let’s call it… Mandatory Palestine?
OK cool. I’m sure nobody will argue with that. What should we call the other stuff?
What other stuff?
You know, on the other side of the Jordan River.
I don’t know. What about Trans-Jordan?
Trans-Jordan. It’s kind of weird, no? Why define something by its border?
What about Desertia?
OK let’s stick with Trans-Jordan. What do you call the people living there? Trans-jordanians?
Hahaha, they’re going to laugh when they hear that. Try to pronounce that. Trans-jordanian.
Do you think they’re going to care?
I mean, the king is going to be a Hashemite anyway. He’s not from this place. He’s just going to inherit his subjects like a medieval king. Probably he doesn’t care?
I mean, yeah, he probably doesn’t want to call them Hashemites. They will get even angrier about that than “trans-jordanian”. At least that doesn’t mean anything, but they sure know they aren’t Hashemites.
Alright, we just solved the Middle East!
Let’s go grab a pint!
This is, of course, a joke. It’s just to illustrate how arbitrary all of this was.
So in 1948, when Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan invade Israel, they are barely states themselves, and they’re not nations yet.2 Of course there’s no such thing as a Palestinian state! There is a Palestinian region—previously known as Mandatory Palestine. What these countries know is that they don’t want a Jewish state there.3
When the war ends up with these borders, Egypt keeps Gaza, and Jordan keeps the West Bank. You can be sure that if Syria or Lebanon had encroached into Mandatory Palestine territory, they would have kept those lands for themselves, too. There is no such thing as a Palestinian state!
This goes on until 1967. The 20 years between 1948 and 1967 are the only time there have been independent Arab states ruling the region. There had been no Palestinian state up to that point.
Were these regions an inherent part of Egypt and Jordan? Not perfectly: Remember that Egypt, Mandatory Palestine, and Transjordan spent 30 years as distinct regions of the British Empire. But that’s it: Different regional management from imperial powers.
The Six-Day War takes place in 1967, and Israel takes over Gaza and the West Bank, which to this point have been ruled by Arabs in Egypt and Jordan. The Arab Palestinian identity hasn’t developed yet; the locals don’t know what they will become yet. But they know what they’re not: Jews.
This is when the Palestinian national identity starts forming. They are Muslims4, they are Arab, they have been ruled by Arab countries. Now Jews control the area—including the sacred city of Jerusalem!—and they don’t want that.
Egypt’s intentions at the time were similar. Remember that it hasn’t been an independent country for that long, and before that it had belonged to the British and Ottoman empires, just like Palestine. It was not especially interested in expanding its territory—by 1956 it gave Sudan its independence. It cares more about making sure Arab Muslim regions are populated and governed by Arab Muslims—including Gaza—than it cares about directly ruling it. Gaza was hard to rule from Cairo, it was hard to defend across the Sinai Peninsula, so within a few years Egypt gave it up in exchange for the Sinai—much closer and more necessary as a defence buffer against Asian powers—and signed peace with Israel.5
Jordan goes through the same mental process: They might have wanted to expand, as the king was the heir of the Hussein bin Ali who wanted a kingdom across all of Arabia. But they realized they couldn’t. Going beyond the Jordan river is problematic. It’s too difficult to rule, Jordan and the West Bank weren’t even united during the Ottoman period, there’s a real geographic divide between them… Not worth it. They, too, eventually sign a peace treaty with Israel.
And this is how the State of Palestine came to never be.
But the nation emerged.
It emerged in the common experience of millions of locals; Muslim Arabs that nobody had supported, living in a region controlled by a Jewish state that didn’t want them there and didn’t want to give them statehood either. Palestine the country never existed, but Palestinians—the nation—was born.
Tough Love for Palestinians
You’d imagine the Arab Muslim neighbors would be profoundly moved by the emergence of their new Palestinian brothers. Let’s see: How have they treated them?
Gaza borders Egypt.
Gaza could have an open border with Egypt.
But Egypt blocks the border.
This is not new. As we saw before, Gaza was Egyptian for nearly 20 years! Why are there 2M Palestinians packed like sardines in a 10 km-long strip today? Because Egypt didn’t want to let them leave. It chooses to be friends with Israel over helping Gaza, because that makes it an ally of the US, and it gets it the money and support it needs. As Palestinians ran away from the hostilities in the war of 1948, they were bottled up in the narrow strip.
The blockade continues. When you hear it in the news, it’s not just Israel blocking Gaza. It’s Israel and Egypt.
The blockade is not new. In 2014, Egyptian soldiers were attacked in the Sinai peninsula. Egypt claimed Hamas was behind it, pushed for an anti-Palestinian campaign in the media, and established a buffer zone along its border with Gaza, demolishing hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of Egyptians in the process.
After retreating from the West Bank without much fighting, Jordan stopped supporting it financially in 1988, severed legal and administrative ties, does not grant Jordanian citizenship to Palestinian refugees from Gaza, has been revoking the citizenship of Palestinians, and doesn’t welcome Palestinian refugees from Syria. 600,000 Palestinian refugees in Jordan don’t have Jordanian nationality. Jordan signed peace with Israel in 1994.
A Palestinian nationalist killed the king of Jordan.
Today, Jordan skews voting districts to penalize Palestinian immigrants, who account for 60% of the Jordanian population. The Jordanian royal family remains fearful that the last vestige of the Hashemite monarchy could collapse under the weight of Palestinians in the kingdom and in the West Bank, paving the way for a Palestinian takeover of Jordan.
Since we’re on the topic of expelling Palestinians: Kuwait expelled ~400,000 of them after the Gulf War, accusing the PLO of siding with Iraq.
Palestinians live as non-citizens in Lebanon, many in refugee camps. The country is reluctant to give them citizenship or civil rights and incorporate them into civic life. They are deprived of access to social services, prohibited from working in dozens of professions, and they can’t buy or bequeath property.
One of the reasons is because accepting them would tilt the local balance in favor of Sunni Muslims, so Christians and Shia are among the most opposed to granting them citizenship. Palestinian refugees consider this racist.
Some refugee camps, in dire conditions, have become militarized and are controlled by factions like Fatah and Hamas. This sparks conflict, and Lebanon then implements security measures around Palestinian camps and restricts the movement of Palestinians, citing concerns about militancy and sectarian conflict.
Syria forcibly relocated Palestinian refugees throughout the country and pushed some to other countries. There are about 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria today, most of them stateless, 30% in refugee camps.
Syrians have another issue with Palestine. They see it as theirs.
Remember the Sykes-Picot line that the French and British drew? It split the traditional Greater Syria in half.
For some Syrians, this is all one region, a Muslim, pan-Arabic country. Palestine was a province of the sovereign entity known as Syria, and those we call Palestinians today were simply Syrians. The Syrians have always been uncomfortable with the concept of a Palestinian state—but not with the destruction of Israel—and actually invaded Lebanon in the 1970s to destroy Fatah and the PLO.
So what do Arab states think about Palestinians?
This is a map of Palestinian refugee camps in the Levant area.
If you tally them up per country:
Jordan has more Palestinian refugees than Gaza and the West Bank together. All these countries force them to keep their refugee status because they want them to pick up their things and leave. Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan don’t want Palestinians on the land they control, just as Israel doesn’t want them in Israel.6 Really, they all agree: Palestinians are great, just Not In My BackYard.7
Game of Throes
It’s not just that the governments of Arab neighbors are uninterested in a Palestinian state and want to get rid of Palestinians within their borders. If a state does emerge there, they want it to look like them.
Have you heard about the United Arab Republic? The United Arab States? The Arab Federation? The Federation of Arab Republics? Some of these were actual countries! They followed the idea of pan-Arabism: a single country for the entire Arab world.
We already explored this idea when King Hussein tried it in Arabia, but he wouldn’t be the only one. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, also tried. Nasser, the president of Egypt in the mid-20th century, had a vision of a single, united Arab republic, both secular and socialist, and thought of Palestine not as an independent state but as part of this United Arab Republic.
The liberation of Palestine from Israel was central to Arab nationalism. Not as an independent state, but as part of this pan-Arabic one. In fact, even better would be to get rid of Jews and incorporate Israel too.
Yasser Arafat was in part a creation of Nasser's Arab secular socialist nationalism. His PLO was the political leader in Palestine, and its offshoot, Fatah, still governs in the West Bank. Arafat defined Palestine in this image: a secular, Arab, socialist, nationalist country.
The fact that there are so many adjectives here tells you a lot about all the enemies this would create. For example, what about those who don’t want a secular country and prefer a Muslim one? This is the direction that countries like Iran and Afghanistan would soon take. This is what the Muslim Brotherhood wants.
Instead of pan-Arabism (the unity of all Arabs), the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt, seeks pan-Islamism (the unity of all Muslims).
The offspring of Egypt’s pan-Arabism in Palestine was Yasser Arafat, the PLO, and Fatah today.
The offspring of Egypt’s pan-Islamism in Palestine is Hamas, now governing in Gaza.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had been banned in Egypt for decades after they tried to assassinate President Nasser, illustrating the conflict between pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. When Mubarak fell in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was legalized and won the elections. Soon after, the military took over, and the Brotherhood was deemed a terrorist organization and banned again. The Egyptian government does not want pan-Islamism in Egypt8, and for the same reason, it doesn’t want it in Gaza.
So Egypt does not support Hamas in Gaza, but supports Fatah in the West Bank.
So that’s about the “secular vs religious” dimension. What about the “socialist vs monarchic” dimension? For that we need to travel to Jordan. Do you remember the civil war I mentioned between Jordan and Palestinian forces? The fact that Palestinians killed a Jordanian king? Yeah, Palestinians don’t want monarchies. So Jordan’s king is not very enthused with a Palestinian state that would have a bigger population than his, and would probably try to get rid of his monarchy. Again.
The Modern Arab World
A lot has happened since 1948, when Israel became a country.
In a first phase, which lasted from 1948 to the end of the millennium, Arab countries were shocked and angered about the recent statehood of Israel. They wanted it to disappear, and if not, at least to create a Palestinian state to take on the Palestinian refugees. They believed that the plight of the refugees was a crucial card for any negotiations about land with Israel. Palestinian refugees mattered less than a Palestinian state which included Jerusalem.
Since then, things have changed. The US has been very present in the Middle East, whether directly in Iraq or indirectly, with money and arms deals. Arab states have slowly gravitated towards the US—and its ally, Israel.
At the same time, pan-Arabism doesn’t exist much anymore, as the feelings of nations have emerged in each of these countries to replace the idea of one Arab nation. In parallel, most Arab country governments have been moving towards secularism as they gradually enter the international community, finding a balance with Islamism.
As Arab countries evolve into more modern nation-states focused more on prosperity and less in pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism, the stability of the Middle East and a positive relationship with Israel and the US matter more than the Palestinian struggle.
For example, today, 25% of Israel’s defense exports are to Arab countries.
In an interview to Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the ruler of Saudi Arabia, he said this:
INTERVIEWER: Can you make a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Is that somebody you can deal with?
MBS: In Saudi Arabian policy, we don’t interfere with who’s running each country. We’re going to start a relationship. That relationship must be continuous regardless of who is running Israel.
Israel signed peace with Egypt very early, and Jordan in the 1990s, but Arab countries have been now signing deals with Israel at an accelerated pace in the context of the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.
In November 2021, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan signed a letter of intent for the export of 600 MW of electricity to Israel annually, produced by solar farms in Jordan that would be built by the UAE-government owned Masdar, while Jordan would receive 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water produced by Israel each year.
When Egypt closed the border between Gaza and Egypt in 2014, it pushed for an anti-Palestinian campaign in the media. This was a 180º turn from the former position of Palestinians and Hamas as brothers and sisters.
Whereas all these countries kept Palestinian refugees in the past to pressure for a Palestinian state or the elimination of Israel, now they keep them as a bargaining chip. Keeping the problem festering gives an excuse to get more money and weapons from the US, and if there’s ever a resolution, resettling them in Arab countries would be a huge negotiation tool they would lose if they simply made them citizens today.
All of this is why Arab countries are much more comfortable with Fatah in the West Bank than Hamas in Gaza: Hamas is Islamist, fundamentalist, violent. Fatah is more peaceful, more secular, more nationalistic, more pragmatic, authoritarian. Like other Arab countries.
Do Arab States Support Palestinians?
Arab people care about the plight of Palestinians. And more importantly, they want them as the best tool to get Jews out and Muslims to control Jerusalem again.
Neighboring Arab states support themselves. And more often than not, Palestinians are an obstacle.
Arab neighbors wanted Palestinian land for themselves. When they couldn’t get it, they dropped it.
Arab neighboring states don’t want Palestinians in their countries. At best, they wanted to use them to pressure the world into creating a Palestinian state. At worst, they wanted to get rid of them. They were like Israel in that regard. It meant that Arab countries favored a Palestinian state among other things to dump Palestinian refugees in it. Now, they also consider using them as bargaining chips.
Arab neighbors don’t want a Palestinian state to obstruct their goals. They don’t want a fundamentalist, violent, bitter, Islamist, republican force to destabilize the region and delegitimize their governments. They want a well-behaved Palestinian government in their image.
It’s unsurprising then that the biggest supporter of Hamas is Iran, a country that is not Arab, doesn’t have Palestinian refugees, promotes Islam, and wants to destabilize the Middle East and the Arab countries it is competing with.
In other words, in the past, Arab neighboring states used to support Palestinians only insofar as they destabilized and threatened Israel. They had no use for a Palestinian state, and little tolerance for the actual plight of Palestinians.
Now, they want Palestine to either shut up or be useful. A Palestinian state is valuable if it can absorb Palestinians, stabilize the region, or be useful to get some goodies.
I hope you found this week’s article insightful. The next one is a hot one: Why Hamas in Gaza is so much more violent than Fatah in the West Bank, whether the two-state solution is viable, and what’s most likely to happen to these regions.
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And many Western ones too, of course.
Remember: This is after the UN writes a resolution granting one state to Israelis and one to Palestinians.
Why? I’ll cover this in another article.
The vast majority. There was a small Christian minority.
This is an interesting story that merits its own article. Imagine the pressure that Egypt had to suffer from all the other Arab and Muslim states. Despite that, it broke ranks and signed a peace treaty with the enemy. It got ostracized for years in the community because of that. Also, Sadat, the Egyptian ruler, invited Arafat to the negotiation table, but he declined.
And some in Israel don’t want them in the West Bank either.
Originally, they might have wanted this to keep pressure on Israel. Now, they might keep them as a bargain chip, by keeping the problem festering, to get some sort of benefit if they eventually keep them… For example, Egypt gets a lot of financial and military help from the US, which can only be justified as support for Israel in their fight against Hamas. It might also be open to relocating some Palestinians to the Sinai in exchange for a huge financial deal.
Or any ideology, for that matter, if it doesn’t support the rule of the military, which has been nearly continuous since 1952.