Israeli soldiers in Gaza: emptying the land of its people

Keeping control over Arab street

Israel’s ethnic cleansing and potential genocide in Gaza has seen the region’s autocratic regimes clamp down on popular protests. Yassamine Mather sees anger below and fear above

In the absence of major demonstrations in support of Gaza in Iran’s Islamic Republic, unfortunately, despite popular Arab anger, we are not seeing a continuation of the large demonstrations of late 2023 in cities throughout the Middle East. The exception remains Sanaa in Yemen, where support for the Houthis is growing and regular Friday demonstrations see hundreds of thousands on the streets supporting the Palestinians.

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, we can blame this on the regime’s arrest of around 1,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators in October and November 2023. Amnesty International has called the Jordanian government’s measures “draconian” adding that, according to information it has received, security forces have detained several political activists for posting on social media expressions of support for Palestine, criticising the government’s policies towards Israel and calling for public demonstrations and strikes. Security forces have used the country’s Cybercrimes Law to justify these arrests. According to Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, “Jordanian authorities are trampling on the right to free expression and assembly to tamp down Gaza-related activism.”

Of course, the Jordanian regent and his government are well aware of strong pro-Palestinian sentiments in the country. That explains King Abdullah’s comments during his visit to the White House three weeks ago, when he said: “One of the most devastating wars in recent history continues to unfold in Gaza, as we speak ... We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah.” Of course, what he is really worried about is the growing anger and frustration inside his country and the threat this poses to his own rule.

Meanwhile, state action has reduced pro-Palestinian protests in Cairo. In Egypt, they were outlawed in November 2013 and, except for a short period immediately after the Israeli bombing of Gaza, when president Abdel el-Sisi tried (and failed) to use a pro-Palestinian march for his election publicity, demonstrations remain illegal. In late October they were allowed for a couple of days and appeared to be orchestrated by the state, with demonstrators being transported in and voicing support for el-Sisi as well as the Palestinians.

However, other protests seemed more spontaneous, and some took an independent direction. During one instance, a group of locals made their way to Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of Egypt’s 2011 protests. While there, the chants shifted from focusing on Palestine to echoing the familiar refrain from 2011 directed at the Egyptian authorities: “Bread, freedom, social justice!”

In Egypt 57 people who took part in protests after October 7 are currently in prison, awaiting the outcome of ‘police investigation’. According to Ahdaf Soueif, writing in The Guardian,

The sentiment in the country is strong. TikTok and Instagram videos from Gaza go viral: a woman looking for a “fair little boy with curly hair”; a grandfather holding the rigid body of a little girl; a red triangle hovering on the screen to direct your eye to a targeted Israeli Merkava tank about to explode; smiling kids making V-signs in the rubble. Uber drivers turn off their meters for Palestinian passengers.

Despite crippling economic conditions, donations flood into private centres, hastily set up to receive them. A call for accommodation for three families who managed to get to Cairo was answered in minutes.1


We have not seen any protests in the Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. This is mainly because any form of protest is illegal in these countries. In fact, in most of these countries, it is illegal to express a political opinion!

The only exception, apart from Sanaa, is Kuwait, where in October large demonstrations were held in support of the Palestinians. But the last Kuwaiti demonstration I can find was held back in January, when the Kuwaiti media reported it positively, which means it probably had state support. According to the Kuwait Times,

Hundreds of protestors gathered at a demonstration at Irada Square on Sunday, organised by political and civil organisations. The event marked the 100th day since Hamas’s ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ operation and the Zionist-American criminal war of genocide against Gaza and Palestine that has claimed a surging civilian death toll and ravaged the besieged Palestinian territory.

Hundred days is a period that may shape a future that may determine one’s fate, and today this period started a revolution to correct the path and achieve victory. This is what our heroes in Gaza are, who succeeded in breaking the image of [the Zionist entity’s] strong intelligence …

MP Hassan Jowhar said during the demonstration: “The 100 days have recorded unprecedented success. Today, the Arab and western peoples are liberated from the restrictions of their governments. They are taking action, and there has become a culture of boycott among Arabs and Muslims. Even our children are calling for a boycott that harms the financial and economic situation of the Zionists and their allies who support them …2

In the United Arab Emirates, all demonstrations are illegal and there are no political parties. However, around the Cop28 gathering in December 2023, 100 protestors gathered on the sidelines outside the UN climate summit calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This was an unusual scene in a country where any form of political activity is banned.

In Lebanon the last major Gaza protest I can find online dates back to October 31 2023. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the French embassy in Beirut, chanting slogans and waving flags, as they voiced their opposition to western backing for the Israeli bombing of Gaza. “How are foreign governments with Israel?” asked a man who lives in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. “They are killing kids in front of the world. They should be supporting the Palestinians, not Israel.”

Hezbollah has made a lot of noise about Gaza, and there have been limited daily skirmishes, and occasional rocket attacks into northern Israel. However, on each occasion, it has made it clear that its action was in retaliation for the last Israeli attack on it.

The latest of these operations took place on March 12, when Hezbollah launched more than 100 Katyusha rockets at two military bases in the occupied Golan Heights. However, the party’s statement does not mention Gaza. It merely stated that the rocket attack “was in response to the Israeli attacks on our people, villages and cities, most recently near the city of Baalbek and the killing of a citizen”.

Fallen short

All this has caused anger amongst Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere. A couple of long speeches by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have fallen short for Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, where some 250,000 Palestinians - children of those who were forced out of their homeland in 1948 - barely survive today.

Of course, Iran has received strong warnings from Joe Biden and the US administration to stay out of the Gaza conflict and discourage its regional allies from “escalating the war”, and Tehran has indeed discouraged Nasrallah from engaging in any serious military operation against Israel.

However, Hezbollah has its reasons for avoiding a full-scale war with Israel: it is part of the coalition in power in Beirut, having several ministers in the current government. The party is not only keen to avoid the type of conflict that will damage Lebanon’s fragile economy: it wants to keep those ministerial positions too (so far there have been no complaints about it from coalition partners).

In February foreign minister Abdallah Bou Habib described Hezbollah members as “Lebanese who know”, who are seeking to secure “Lebanon’s interests”. He argued that the regime would not try to silence Hezbollah’s guns - let alone consider disarming it - until Israel had settled all outstanding disputes with Lebanon.

To summarise, US threats against Iran, as well as the continued operation of well-organised dictatorships in the region, have created a situation where full and open public expression of the anger and frustration felt by millions in the Middle East has been successfully suppressed. However, as the number of deaths keeps increasing, as starvation threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, even the well-oiled repressive security forces of Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states might not be able to continue silencing protestors and keep control of the Arab streets.

  1. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/03/egypt-palestinians-rafah-border-rights.↩︎

  2. kuwaittimes.com/article/10125/top-stories/kuwaiti-protesters-rally-in-solidarity-with-palestinians.↩︎