Israel’s war on Gaza: The West against the rest?

Stop arming Israel protest

“Staying alive is only a matter of luck”, is how an employee of Doctors Without Borders described the situation in Gaza in mid-December. After Israel began Operation Iron Swords in response to the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, bombs rained down on the densely populated coastal strip. Israel is making heavy use of 100-kilogram bombs of US origin that have a devastating effect, razing entire residential buildings to the ground. The number of dead, injured, and mutilated victims rises by the hour — most of them women and children.

International reactions to Israel’s actions have varied, ranging from “unconditional support” to cautious restraint and outright condemnation. The divergent positions were especially clear in the two resolutions of the UN General Assembly on 27 October and 12 December 2023. During the votes on the two non-binding resolutions, which called for a temporary ceasefire and a permanent cessation of hostilities, the countries from the Arab world and the majority of those in the Global South voted in favour. France and Greece likewise supported the resolutions, while Germany and the UK abstained.

Among the countries that voted against the resolution were Israel, the United States, Paraguay, Austria, and Guatemala. Some observers therefore argue that the Global South has found a “common voice” in light of the war in Gaza and is now challenging the West (or, depending on one’s interpretation, the “Global North”). Statements such as those by South African President Ramaphosa, who declared that Israel is committing “war crimes” and “genocide” in Gaza (while also emphasizing that he does not want to sever ties with Israel), or those by Brazilian President Lula, who said that US President Biden lacks the necessary “sensitivity” to end the war in Gaza, seem to point in this direction.

When politicians from the Global South present themselves as champions of a more just world order, in which the dominance of the West — particularly the US — is reduced or even eliminated in favour of a “multipolar” international order, they can draw on the current experiences of many people in the South who face Western hegemony, as well as tap into elements of collective memory. In the case of Israel, a country that sees itself as part of the Western world and is also perceived as such, this involves recalling its support for authoritarian and reactionary regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Israel’s war against Palestine is perceived here as a colonial war, thus placing it in the context of their own history.

A closer examination of the international reactions to the current war in Gaza, however, reveals a more nuanced and complex picture.

Arab rapprochement with Israel and the problems it creates

It is not surprising that there is broad support for the Palestinian struggle among the populations of the Arab states. A survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in 14 Arab countries with 33,000 participants revealed that the vast majority of respondents (92 percent) rejects the normalization of relations with Israel if no solution for Palestinians is found.

This stands in stark contrast to the efforts of some Arab governments to enter a “normalization process” with Israel without there being a solution to the Palestinian quest for statehood . Egypt and Jordan notably concluded peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively. This was followed by the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in September 2020, along with agreements with Sudan and Morocco. There have also been recent reports of a similar rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

As a result, the statements made by the Gulf states initially tended to take a rather moderate stance. For example, the initial reaction of the UAE Minister of Commerce, Thani al Zeyoudi, to the Hamas attacks was that his country did not mix business and trade with politics. While the official Saudi stance emphasized the kingdom’s “unwavering commitment” to the Palestinians, positions were tolerated in the tightly controlled Saudi public sphere that declared normalization with Israel would better serve the Palestinian cause, whereas the Hamas attacks primarily benefited Iran.

When public outrage threatened to spiral out of control after the attack on the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza on 17 October 2023, where hundreds of people lost their lives, some Arab governments decided to permit demonstrations in a limited form. Consequently, thousands of people took to the streets in many cities in the region. Demonstrations took place in Cairo, where protesters returned to Tahrir Square for the first time since 2013, in Jordan, where police and security forces prevented a protest march to the border with the West Bank, in Bahrain, where demonstrations are rarely allowed, in Beirut, Tunis, Kuwait City, Tripoli, Baghdad, Idlib in Syria, Taiz in Yemen, and in Rabat in Morocco.

Just how little practical support the Palestinians can expect from the governments of the Arab states, however, was demonstrated at the Arab-Islamic summit in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in mid-November. According to reports, “influential countries” in the Arab League prevented the adoption of proposals for concrete measures against Israel. The final declaration contained rather vague, non-binding clauses and a series of demands whose implementation was beyond the control of the participants. Proposals such as closing the air space of some Arab nations to Israeli civilian aircraft or imposing a partial oil embargo were rejected.

The governments gathered in Riyadh found themselves in different situations when it came to legitimizing such a policy vis-à-vis their respective populations at home. In the UAE, for example, only around 30 percent of residents hold Emirati passports. The rest are migrant workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, who have no means of exerting political pressure. The situation in Jordan is different: around 2 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants live there. On top of that, the Hashemite Kingdom also acts as the “custodian” of the holy sites in Jerusalem. As such, Jordan says it will not endorse a collaboration project with Israel that provides solar energy from Jordan in exchange for desalinated water from Israel since it is highly controversial among the population. Nevertheless, a gas agreement from 2016 that is more economically and politically significant is expected to continue. The 1994 peace agreement is also to be reviewed.

A central problem of legitimacy shared by nearly all the participants at the summit in Riyadh is that these rulers were not democratically elected and are themselves extremely repressive towards their own population. The most extreme case of this is the Assad regime in Syria. Opposition forces in Syria have thus sharply criticized the Syrian ruler’s participation in the conference in Riyadh. The images and reports from Gaza remind many Syrians of their own experiences of bombardment and displacement, especially since many Palestinians were affected there as well — the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus serves as a prominent example of this. But for the other autocratic regimes in the region, public sympathy for the Palestinian struggle is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, political protests can be channelled and directed towards an external enemy; on the other, such protests can also unleash a dynamic directed against oppression in general, including in their own country. The Palestinian question has an explosive potential that extends far beyond Palestine and Israel.

Support for the “Palestinian cause” by the governments of Arab and Muslim countries thus only extends as far as it serves their economic, domestic political, and geopolitical interests, or at the very least, does not run counter to them. If it does pose such an issue, the publicly proclaimed “solidarity with Palestine” is quickly abandoned. Take, for example, the UAE, where bilateral trade with Israel has grown, according to Israeli figures, to 6 billion US dollars since 2020. The two countries also signed a free trade agreement in May 2022.

Additionally, there is a collaboration between the countries in the defence sector, with Israel supplying air defence systems to the UAE following the missile and drone strikes on Abu Dhabi by the Yemeni Houthi movement, which is allied with Iran, in early 2022. And in early 2023, defence contractors from both countries unveiled a jointly developed unmanned warship designed for submarine warfare. Israeli sources also report that a land bridge between the UAE and Israel has become operational. The project for the delivery of goods from the Gulf States via Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Israel is one of the outcomes of the Abraham Accords. With the Houthi rebels in Yemen intensifying their attacks on international ships in the Red Sea, the traffic of goods on this route has actually increased since the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Indian–Israeli ideological affinity and military cooperation

Ironically, it was Indian Prime Minister Modi who explicitly referred to the Global South as an active participant on the global stage in mid-November. Yet, India was one of the few countries of the South that abstained from voting on the UN resolution on 27 October.

India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar justified this decision by saying, among other things, that Indians themselves were “big victims of terrorism”. Historically, however, India has had a somewhat negative attitude towards Israel. Diplomatic relations were only established in 1992. A turning point was the Indo-Pakistani War of 1999, when Israel began supplying weapons to India on a larger scale. Today, India receives 2 billion dollars’ worth of armaments from Israel annually, making Israel India’s second largest arms supplier after Russia.

Relations between Israel and India intensified when Modi took office in 2014 and became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017. Certainly, one reason for this is the ideological affinity between the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Modi belongs, and right-wing Zionist positions. Both seek to establish a religious-nationalist state and see themselves as guardians of a culture that is under external threat. This is also the message spread by BJP-affiliated groups on social media: in Hindu nationalist discourse, the Palestinian Hamas is equated with the Muslim residents who form a majority in the northern Indian region Jammu and Kashmir. Several rebel organizations fighting for the secession of Kashmir from India operate in this region, whose autonomous status was revoked by the BJP government in 2019.

Formalized collaboration between India and Israel occurs within the I2U2 group established in July 2022. This group, which comprises India, Israel, the UAE, and the US, is a direct result of the Abraham Accords. The objective is to foster collaboration among the participating states in economic and military-strategic domains. One of the primary goals of the I2U2 group is to counter Chinese influence.

Hegemonic competition with the US

The Chinese leadership also likes to invoke the Global South and positions its own country as a leader in this context. For some time now, China has sought to expand its presence in West Asia, a region where it traditionally had limited influence. These efforts led to a deal brokered by China in early 2023 to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Following the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, China was among the first countries to call for a ceasefire. In mid-October, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a global peace conference. He accused Israel of going “beyond the scope of self-defence” with the bombing of the Gaza Strip. Overall, however, China’s reaction remained muted, largely due to its close economic ties with various states in the region. China is the largest trading partner for most countries in West Asia, and almost half of China’s oil imports come from the Gulf region. Last year, China’s total trade with the Arab world amounted to more than 430 billion dollars.

That said, substantial connections with Israel have developed, especially since the transformation of the Chinese economy towards a market-oriented system under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. After the suppression of the Chinese democracy movement in 1989, Israel began exporting military goods to China while bypassing Western sanctions. Today, China is Israel’s second-largest trading partner after the US.

Israel also provides China with access to critical technologies, especially as the US and other Western nations have increasingly restricted China’s participation in these sectors. According to the official investment guide of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China’s imports from Israel mostly consist of high-tech products such as electronic devices, medical instruments, and telecommunications products.

In mid-October, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement announcing increased cooperation with China in West Asia and North Africa. Like China, Russia — which is not necessarily a country from the Global South but is a member of BRICS, a bloc of nations seeking to assert a “multipolar world order” — maintains diverse connections in the region. There appears to be a moratorium with Israel in Syria, where the Israeli air force regularly targets positions of Iran and Hezbollah without interference from Russian defences (although recent reports indicate that Israel has ceased reporting these attacks to Russia).

Both the Chinese leadership and the Putin regime view the war in Gaza less in terms of siding with Israel or Palestine and more in terms of a long-term strategy aimed at limiting the influence of the US in the region. Both nations also partially justify the suppression of opposition movements with the “fight against Islamism”. Expanding the ideological influence of groups such as Hamas is therefore not in their interests.

Building a movement of solidarity — but how?

With this in mind, the Global South cannot be simply understood as an ally of the Palestinians. Conversely, there are also cracks in the apparent consensus of governments in the Global North. The recently re-elected Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, for example, declared at the end of November that he had “serious doubts that Israel is complying with international humanitarian law”. A few days before, Sánchez had accused Israel of “indiscriminate killing of Palestinians” in the Gaza Strip, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo emphasized on a joint trip to Egypt with Sánchez that it cannot be accepted “that a society is being destroyed the way [Gaza] is being destroyed.”

Particularly harsh criticism also comes from Ireland. While Leo Varadkar repeatedly condemned the Hamas attack on civilians in Israel, he also asserted that Israel’s response “resembles something more approaching revenge”. Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins was particularly explicit, accusing the Netanyahu government of undermining international human rights standards. “To actually announce in advance that you’re going to break international law … and do so on an innocent population,” Higgins stated in mid-October, “it really reduces all that code that was there from the second World War through the Geneva conventions about the protection of civilians … to tatters”.

The “cracks in the apparent consensus” of the Global North could serve as the starting point for a solidarity movement with the Palestinian population in these countries. The pressure from large activists groups, especially on the US government — where President Biden risks his chances of being re-elected in November due to his unconditional support for Israel, providing the solidarity movement with some leverage — but also in Germany, which largely follows this course of unconditional support, may prove crucial in forcing a real ceasefire in Gaza.

At the same time, such activism is necessary to counter the erosion of democracy and the rising tide of racism targeting migrants, especially those from Islamic or Arab countries. The involvement of individuals or groups from other movements — such as the climate movement — is something that would be very much welcomed. An important approach here is, for instance, the emerging international trade union campaign against the supply of weapons and surveillance technology to Israel.

The fact that certain states pursue economic and geopolitical interests that run counter to those of the Global North does not automatically make them allies of the Palestinian people or the Palestine solidarity movement. In political debate and action, it is crucial to differentiate between states as well as place less hope in them than in social movements. These social movements should also network with the — undoubtedly weak — progressive movements in Palestine, Israel, and West Asia as a whole.

Harald Etzbach is a historian and political scientist. He is also a member of the editorial board at emanzipation. Translated by Shane Anderson and Alice Naomi Rodgers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.