What is it about the Arab-Israeli conflict that makes it evoke emotion on such a global scale across such a diverse set of populations? I don't dispute that for Muslims, Jews and concerned citizens of the world, the Arab-Israeli conflict genuinely induces powerful reactions. But I often wonder about the magnitude and scope of this global outcry and why it seems to dominate other more local grievances like unemployment, restrictions on civil liberties, and corruption.
We all know the arguments. On one side of the spectrum, we hear about the fear and horror of daily rocket bombardments on Israeli cities and villages. We hear the traumatic stories from families who have lost love ones and live in fear of belligerent rocket fire and threats of suicide bomb attacks. On the other side of the spectrum, we are reminded of a stateless people who are living under difficult economic and social conditions. There are no shortage of heart-wrenching stories about the challenges Palestinians face in both the West Bank and Gaza. With the outbreak of the recent violence in such a densely populated area, Palestinian civilians have been caught in cross-fire. And, of course, there are those who blame both sides, arguing that the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships are responsible for perpetuating conflict that has claimed the lives of innocent civilians.
The diversity of views that exist is acceptable to me, but there are aspects of the global reaction I find perplexing. At times, I have remarked to friends that the further one goes from the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the angrier people seem to be about it. Why do young people in Algeria, unemployed and living in poverty, tell me that their primary grievance in life is the fact that the Palestinians do not have a state? What makes 10,000 Indonesians march against violence in Gaza, but not Indonesian casualties at the hands of Jamaa Islamiyya or Al-Qaeda? I don't understand why thousands of Syrians take to the streets to support "freedom" for the Palestinians, yet not a single protest in Damascus pushing the regime for their own civil liberties? In Lebanon, the Al-Qaeda group Fatah al-Islam waged a deadly campaign inside of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp, yet despite it taking place on Lebanese soil, I don't recall floods of protests into downtown Beirut. In Pakistan, thousands will amass in front of the U.S. consulate in Karachi with bricks and slogans against violence between Israel and Hamas, but not the almost weekly Al-Qaeda assaults inside their own borders. Why are Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants living in the UK angrier about the Arab-Israeli conflict than events in their home countries or the integration and inclusion challenges that more directly affect them? And why are tens of thousands of Persian Shiites in Iran filling out surveys and registering to wage a jihad in the predominantly Sunni Arab Gaza?
How does one account for the double standards, inconsistencies, and lack of similar activism around local issues that are illustrated by these questions? There is no single answer, but perhaps certain trends and contexts that help explain the phenomenon. The media is an obvious starting point. Al-Jazeera, Al-Manar, and other Arab media outlets are flooding the airwaves throughout Muslim communities with images from Gaza and the West Bank. The media plays on identity presenting these images to touch the hearts and minds of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world. Most of the people seeing these images do not live in the heart of the conflict and thus have a certain luxury to protest and demonstrate. For Muslim communities in Europe, this is particularly the case. Far away from home and poorly integrated into mainstream society, immigrant populations in Western Europe often struggle with the issue of identity. This challenge has led to a metaphorical feeling of statelessness that many immigrants experience. The imagery they see in newspapers, online, and on the television screen offer a visual connection between them and other Muslim communities. The outrage we witness via media is a convenient way for grievances to manifest themselves. This is not exclusive to immigrant communities in Europe; the same can be said for Muslim populations in Venezuela, which may explain why thousands marched in Caracas against Israel last week.
The barrage of images in the media, particularly during a period of fighting, ensures that the Arab-Israeli conflict is at the forefront of people's minds. There is no shortage of entities that seek to exploit this. Governments like Syria and Iran face serious economic, political, and social challenges at home. Fearing that any of these vulnerabilities could catalyze rebellion, insurrection, or protest, these regimes employ corrupt, autocratic, and repressive tactics to deprive their populations of rights and opportunities to mount any serious challenge, including a viciously controlled media. It is not surprising that these regimes view the Arab-Israeli conflict as an opportune issue that can divert attention away from their domestic shortcomings. The repressive leadership of these countries actively distract from their domestic deficiencies by pushing their population to focus anger, frustration and rage externally. I am sure Bashar al-Assad in Syria prefers the sound of "Oh Mubarak, listen, listen, the Arab people will not kneel down" to open critiques of his own regime. The Arab-Israeli conflict casts a convenient shadow of cover over their dubious activities.
This conflict is not a hard sell to the people of our world as the images seen on television are impactful and Muslims around the world identify with the plight of the Palestinians just as the Jewish people around the world have a similar reaction to images and news of rocket attacks and suicide bombings. Of equal importance is the fact that populations in repressive countries--normally restricted on freedom of assembly and speech--are permitted to speak out about this issue. In this sense, the conflict takes on a double meaning as the state often encourages such mobilization against Israel. In Syria, for example, the Assad regime does not permit freedom of assembly or speech, yet in the wake of the Israel/Gaza conflict, the regime relaxed these restrictions to create room for the population to speak out against Israel.
Where States do not stoke the organically felt sentiments in Muslim communities, non-state entities play the role of flame-thrower, agitator, and mobilizer on what they view as a winning issue. In places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Jamaa Islamiyya use the global outcry in ungoverned spaces, urban slums, and impoverished rural areas to piggy-back on the emotion and recruit new members. They care not for the Palestinian people, nor do they advocate a peaceful solution; their sole interest is in seizing an opportunity for exploitative recruitment.
An amplified global outcry has led to a misperception that all the world's problems will be solved if the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved. While this would be a tremendous achievement that would allow the world to move forward beyond a conflict that has perpetuated for decades, it is not the silver bullet solution. A Palestinian state will not create jobs in North Africa, it will not reduce poverty in South Asia, and it will not help Muslims in Europe integrate. By making the Arab-Israeli conflict a lynchpin for all the world's problems, we only fuel an inclination to use Israel and Palestine as the scapegoat for unrelated and local challenges across the developing world.
Read more posts from the Dorm Room Diplomacy series.