It is commonplace to talk about the ‘fog of war', but war can also clarify things. The war in Gaza has pointed up the Israeli security establishment's belief in force as a means of imposing ‘solutions' which result in massive Arab civilian suffering and solve nothing. It has also laid bare the feebleness of the Arab states, and their inability to protect Palestinian civilians from the Israeli military, to the despair and fury of their citizens. Almost from the moment the war began, America's Arab allies – above all Egypt – found themselves on the defensive, facing accusations of impotence and even treason in some of the largest demonstrations the region has seen in years. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbullah in Lebanon, reserved some of his harshest criticism for the Mubarak regime; at Hizbullah rallies, protesters chanted ‘Where are you, Nasser?' – a question that is also being asked by Egyptians.
The Egyptian government and its Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco – responded to the war much as they responded to the 2006 invasion of Lebanon: by tacitly supporting Israel's offensive in the hope of weakening a resistance movement which they see as a proxy for Iran and Syria. When the bombing began, Egypt criticised Hamas over the breakdown of the reconciliation talks with Fatah that Cairo had brokered, and for firing rockets at Israel. The implication was that Hamas was responsible for the war. Refusing to open the Rafah crossing, the Mubarak government pointed out that Israel, the occupying power, not Egypt, was responsibile for the humanitarian situation in Gaza under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Egypt's concern is understandable: ever since it recovered the Sinai in 1982, it has worried that Israel might attempt to dump responsibility onto it for the Strip's 1.5 million impoverished residents, a fear that has grown as the prospects of ending the occupation have receded. But its initial refusal to open the crossing to relief supplies, medical personnel and reporters made it difficult for Cairo to deny charges that it was indifferent to Palestinian suffering, and that it valued relations with Israel and the US (its main patron) more highly than the welfare of Gaza's people.
Since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006, Egypt's press has been rife with lurid warnings – echoed in conservative Lebanese and Saudi newspapers, as well as Israeli ones – about the establishment in Gaza of an Islamic emirate backed by Iran. Cairo's distrust of Hamas is closely connected with internal politics: Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers, the country's largest opposition movement; and it came to power in Gaza in the kind of democratic elections that Mubarak has done everything to prevent. (He is likely to be succeeded by his son, Gamal, after sham elections.) When there still seemed hope of a Palestinian Authority (PA) coalition government between Fatah and Hamas (which would have diluted the latter's power), Egypt was careful to appear balanced. But after the deep split in Palestinian politics that followed the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, Egypt tilted increasingly against Hamas. The division of occupied Palestine into two PAs – a Fatah-ruled West Bank and a Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, both without sovereignty, jurisdiction or much in the way of authority – was seen in Cairo as a threat to domestic security: it promised greater instability on Egypt's borders, jeopardised the negotiated two-state solution with Israel to which Egypt was committed, and emboldened allies of the Muslim Brothers.
Egypt has also been alarmed by Hamas's deepening relationship with its fiercest adversaries: Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. ‘Moderate' Arab regimes like the one in Egypt – deeply authoritarian, at best, but friendly with the US – have favoured peaceful negotiations with Israel, but negotiations have not led to Palestinian independence, or even translated into diplomatic leverage. Resistance movements such as Hizbullah and Hamas, by contrast, can plausibly claim that they forced Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab land while scoring impressive gains at the ballot box; they have also been reasonably free of corruption. As if determined to increase the influence of these radical movements, Israel has undermined Abbas and the PA at every turn: settlements, bypass roads and ‘security barriers' continue to encroach on Palestinian land; none of the 600 checkpoints and barriers in the West Bank has been removed; and more than 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners languish in Israeli jails. The result has been the erosion of support for the PA, and for the conciliatory approach pursued by the PA and Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which reacted by moving even closer to the Bush administration in its waning days. Mubarak, according to Ha'aretz, urged Olmert to continue the Gaza offensive until Hamas was severely weakened – though Egypt has, of course, denied these reports.
But Hamas will not be so easily defeated, even if Israel's merciless assault and Hamas's own obduracy have brought untold suffering on the people of Gaza and much of the Strip lies in ruins: like Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, all it has to do in order to proclaim victory is remain standing. The movement continued to fire rockets into Israel under devastating bombardment, and it looks likely to emerge politically stronger when the war is over, although as with Hizbullah, it may have provoked popular resentment for bringing Israeli fire down on the heads of the civilian population: there was little Palestinian popular support for the firing of rockets at Israel in the months before the Israeli offensive. It is doubtful, moreover, whether any Hamas leader will be as shrewd as Hassan Nasrallah after the 2006 Lebanon war, when he admitted that had he known the damage Israel would do, he would not have offered the pretext that triggered its onslaught.
Israel began a propaganda campaign several months ago, when it closed Gaza to journalists in what appears to have been an effort to remove witnesses from the scene before the crime took place. Cell phone transmission was interrupted to prevent the circulation of photos and videos. The result, in Israel and the US, has been an astonishingly sanitised war, in which, in a bizarre attempt at ‘balance', the highly inaccurate rocket attacks against Israel and their three civilian victims since the fighting began on 27 December have received as much attention as the levelling of Gaza and the killing of more than 1000 Palestinians and the wounding of nearly 5000, most of them civilians. But Arabs and Muslims (and indeed most people not living in the US and Israel) have seen a very different war, with vivid images of those trapped in the Gaza Strip, thanks in large part to Arab journalists on the ground.
During the large demonstrations that erupted in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen, condemnation was directed not only at the usual targets, Israel and the US, but also at the passivity, even complicity, of Arab governments. Stung by the protests and fearing popular unrest, several Arab states sent their foreign ministers to New York, led by Prince Sa'ud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, and forced through a Security Council resolution in the face of American resistance. Jordan withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv; Qatar broke off ties with Israel and offered $250 million for the rebuilding of Gaza. At the same time, Egypt made limited concessions, taking some wounded Gazans to hospitals in Egypt, providing medical supplies, and belatedly allowing a few medical personnel into the Strip through the Rafah crossing. Yet the Mubarak regime has otherwise continued to play the role of even-handed mediator.
As I write, its proposals for a ceasefire have met with a positive response from both Hamas (which has significantly modulated its criticism of Egypt) and Israel. It is still unclear how Egypt will respond to Israel's demands that it halt arms smuggling through tunnels into Gaza; when and if the crossings will be fully opened; under what arrangements, and how reconstruction aid will be channelled to the devastated area; and indeed how an Egyptian-brokered arrangement, should it come into force and endure, will be regarded by Egyptian and Arab public opinion.
For the moment, the shaky legitimacy of Abbas's government in Ramallah, and of the authoritarian Arab governments that have cast their lot with Israel and the United States in the regional contest with Iran, appears to have grown shakier still. Should Iran and Syria succeed in rapidly establishing new relationships with Washington under the Obama administration, these governments will be further weakened. Moreover, their inability (or their unwillingness) to do more to resolve the Palestine question, or even to alleviate Palestinian suffering, has been exposed once again. It contrasts starkly with democratic and non-Arab Turkey's robust support for the Palestinians. Palestine has been a rallying cry for opposition movements in the Arab world since 1948, and in the decade after the first Arab-Israeli war a series of domestic upheavals, revolutions and coups took place in several Arab countries, including Egypt, where veterans of the Palestine war led by Nasser came to power in the 1952 coup against King Farouk. The repressive capacities of a government such as Egypt's, whose secret police is said to employ more than a million people, should not be underestimated. But several unpopular regimes may face serious consequences at home for having aligned themselves with Israel.
Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia.