OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM — “Imagine that!”
Osama al Rashaq stands outside the sandwich shop he runs in the afternoons on Salah Al Din Street in East Jerusalem when it gets too hot. During the day he’s a student at Al Quds University. A major in International Relations, he prides himself on his extensive knowledge of Palestinian and Arab history and politics. Today he struggles to find the words to explain what is happening in the Gulf.
A diplomatic coup of Shakespearean proportions has been unfolding on the nearby Arabian Peninsula, chaired by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the tiny oil-rich nation of Qatar in their crosshairs.
“Imagine that this week that marks the setback for the Arabs, instead of marking this memory by trying to revive our commitment to standing strong and demanding our rights, we’re tearing each other apart even more,” he said.
Rashaq was in disbelief. All of this was happening during the week that marked the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel defeated three Arab armies and occupied large swathes of their land and all of historic Palestine, including the West Bank and Jerusalem. It would come to be known as the Naksa, Arabic for the "Setback", which the Arab world has mourned collectively ever since, and long vowed to reverse.
Now, exactly 50 years later, the Arab League’s hawks are circling around one of their own, tearing its economic limbs off with their beaks, while Israel and the Trump-led United States cheer (or tweet) them on from the sidelines.
During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
“We lost because of the divisions we had in 1967; because there was no co-ordination between Egypt, Syria and Jordan, or the the rest of the Arab countries and that’s essential why were defeated. We’re repeating these mistakes all over again.”
Salah al Din Street stretches through the heart of Jerusalem to the foot of one of the gates to the Old City, where a millennium earlier its eponym had brought a united Muslim army to defeat the Crusaders and take back Palestine from Western powers. Today it is one of the few commercial hubs left for the city’s dwindling Arab population, pushed out slowly and deliberately by Israeli forces through a campaign of housing demolitions, restrictive municipal laws and mass arrests.
Hamas is the real issue
A teacher riding through the street on a motorcycle said he didn’t want his name recorded, in case the police came looking for him. He’s a supporter of Hamas, the Palestinian party and armed resistance movement controlling the Gaza Strip. This is illegal in Israel.
“I’m of course with Qatar,” he said, pausing to glance nervously at a car that had pulled over next to him.
“Hamas is one of the factions that represents Palestinians, and here they are destroying these factions, and destroying the Palestinian struggle. The Arab countries sold us back in 1967, they don’t serve the interests of Al Quds [Arabic for Jerusalem], or the interest of Palestinians for that matter. Qatar was at least helping the Palestinians.”
At the heart of the current Gulf ordeal is Hamas and Qatar’s paternal relationship with it. For years, the party’s leadership operated out of Doha, and enjoyed political, financial and mediative support from the kingdom. This fuelled the ire of Israel and the US, who’ve successfully advocated to blacklist Hamas internationally as a terrorist organisation. Qatar’s enthusiastic support for Hamas’ ideological predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood, had pit it against most of its peers on the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt, Jordan and one of Libya’s two governments.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE were aggressively cracking down on the Brotherhood’s networks and imprisoning the group’s local leadership on their own turf, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el Sisi had overthrown the group in a military coup four years ago, putting himself in the presidential seat.
Yet while all of this had been happening for years, the timing of this week’s sweeping diplomatic takedown of Qatar could not be more astounding. It had come less than two weeks after US President Donald Trump stood in front of Arab leaders in Riyadh and told them they had to take the lead in fighting terrorism, and the countries that were funding it.
“This is an extension of the US’ political vision in the Middle East,” the Palestinian political analyst Fadel Tahboub told TRT World in an interview in his home.
“What happened in the Riyadh summit was that the US indicated to Saudi Arabia that it should move ahead to stop Qatar from funding certain groups in the region.”
Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar have been competing over who can extend the most influence across the Middle East and North Africa, and this has become burdensome for both sides recently, but more so for the US.
“What is clear is that the US has drawn a plan for itself in the Middle East, and placed Saudi Arabia as the maestro for that plan. Qatar isn’t complying with that vision, and so Saudi Arabia is attempting to force it to bow to its leadership.”
He said part of this plan was bolstering support in the region against Iran, a favourite enemy of Saudi, but also the acceptance and normalisation of Israel as a regional power, and by extension, the abandoning of the Palestinian issue completely.
A history of betrayal
Today’s divisions has sharp historic parallels. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Those who stood together under the banner of Arab nationalism were more focused on their own regional and domestic power struggles than coming to the aid of the Palestinians.
Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer ordered Egyptian troops to retreat from the Sinai, effectively handing it over to Israeli forces. And King Hussein of Jordan took Egypt’s retreat as a sign that he didn't need to fight either, and essentially handed over Jerusalem and the West Bank to Israel. The final blow to Arab support for the Palestinians came when the Syrian defence minister Hafez al Assad, who would later go on to become president (and father of current Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad) announced a ceasefire on the sixth day of the war, despite the fact that Syrians were still resisting the Israeli invasion of the Golan Heights.
Fast forward to today, and Saudi Arabia has been quietly improving its relationship with Israel for some time, who was now championing its move against Qatar and Hamas on the same week as the anniversary of 1967. No one saw the irony of that more than Palestinians.
“The Middle East always surprises us with more symbolism,” said Mahmoud Monan, a bookseller in East Jerusalem.
“It is really adding salt to the wound. Instead of finding a good way to come to terms with 50 years of occupation, to actually work to end this occupation, we see Saudi Arabia once again acting against the interests of the rest of the Arab world.”
He said Saudi Arabia was betraying the responsibility it had placed on its own shoulders as a self-appointed leader for the Muslim world, and it should be doing more to support the Palestinians instead of stabbing them in the back.
“It’s indeed an act of betrayal. Hamas was elected by the Palestinian people and whether we agree with it or not, it actually is representative or partially representative of the Palestinian society. And if we disagree with this political party, we should be engaged to change its policies rather than to exclude it and to push it outside the circle.”
Not everyone is jumping to Qatar’s side. Another resident, Wahid Chabani, said what's happening to the Gulf state now is a “consequence of its actions the last few years”.
“Such a tiny country hosting the largest US military base in the region, all its work since the Arab Spring has been to fuel divisions,” he said.
“The biggest example of this is the fallout in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah. Qatar was sponsoring this ideologically and financially.”
But Chabani said he was under no illusion that Saudi Arabia was acting out of anything but its own self-interests. After all, its track record for intervening in politics regionally was at least as colourful as Qatar’s. What was certain, at the end of the day, was that the looming anniversary marking 50 years of occupation of Palestinian land was the furthest removed from the minds of those regional players that might actually have the influence to influence the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Shortly before packing up his store to head home and break his fast, Osama al Rashaq said it was funny that Trump had spoken for more than half an hour before a room full of Muslim and Arab leaders, and never mentioned Palestine once. It was funnier still that no one seemed too concerned about that.
“Today, with total audacity, no one even mentions 1967, except maybe in the activism pages on Facebook.”
What was once the rallying cry for leaders wanting to appeal to the sentiments of Arab hearts and their inherited affection for Al Quds and its people had now been abandoned in favour of speeches on terrorism, fears of Iranian takeover, and billion dollar arms deals.
“The promises are gone, the armies are gone, and now the Palestinian has gone back to what he was before – isolated and alone.”
- Achment Gonim contributed additional reporting from Istanbul