Sea Change in the Arab World?

When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, the goal was to restore calm for its citizens by eliminating the twin threats of missile fire and tunnel terror from Gaza, not to destroy Hamas.

But the operation has revealed a stunning shift in the Arab world: Terror groups like Hamas can no longer count on automatic support for their attacks on Israel. To the contrary, there are voices in the Arab world that openly state that Hamas, not Israel, is responsible for the death and destruction in Gaza, and that Hamas, not Israel, is the real enemy of the Palestinians.

“Hamas has never considered Palestinian needs — only its own political interests,” wrote Bassem Eid, a human-rights activist and political commentator who lives in eastern Yerushalayim. “And so they have continued to fire rockets at Israel, knowing full well what the result would be: Hamas paved the road for the death of our people. We knew that Hamas was digging the tunnels that would lead to our destruction.

“We all know that three people live on every square meter in Gaza, and Hamas knew that any attack by Israel would lead to massive death. But Hamas leaders are more interested in their victories than in the lives of their victims. Indeed, Hamas needs these deaths in order to claim victory. Death of its own people empowers Hamas, enabling it to accrue more money and more arms.”

What is Eid’s operative conclusion? That the residents of the Gaza Strip should rebel. “We must rid ourselves of Hamas and completely demilitarize Gaza,” he argues. “Then we will open up the border crossings. I say this as a loyal Palestinian and because I care for my own people.”

Eid isn’t a lone voice. Ibrahim Khreisheh, the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), had the courage to break with the Arab narrative that Israel is guilty of war crimes for its conduct in Operation Protective Edge and instead point the finger of blame at Hamas.

“The missiles that are being launched against Israel — each and every missile constitutes a crime against humanity, whether it hits or misses, because it is directed at civilian targets,” he said. Israel, on the other hand, “warned them [Gazan residents] to evacuate their homes before the bombardment. … In such a case, if someone is killed, the international law considers it a mistake rather than an intentional killing.”

In an article in Asharq Al-Awsat, a highly regarded Arabic international newspaper published in London with the approval of the Saudi royal family, columnist Mamoun Fandy goes so far as to say that the Arab-Israeli conflict is over and that Operation Protective Edge was a clash between Iran, Turkey and Qatar, via their proxy Hamas, and Israel.

“The relative disengagement of Arab states and the anti-Hamas rhetoric in the Arab, and especially the Egyptian, media suggest a sea-change in public perception of the conflict throughout the Arab world,” he wrote.

Aaron Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former Middle East negotiator under several presidents, concurs. “I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummeling of Hamas,” he said. “The silence is deafening.”

This welcome phenomenon, in which Arabs begin to recognize that the enemy is the terror groups who attack Israel, necessitating a violent response that harms noncombatants, is nothing new.

In this week’s parashah, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael not to be afraid of the powerful nations who would block their entry into Eretz Yisrael, reminding them of how Hashem defeated Mitzrayim with miracles and an outstretched hand (Devarim 7:19). Rashi says that “outstretched hand” is a reference to the sword used in the plague of the firstborn.

The Sifsei Chachamim explain that this isn’t the sword of Hashem against the firstborn, but the sword of the firstborn against their parents. “The firstborn … knew they would be struck because of Israel. They told their fathers to send the Jews from Mitzrayim and they didn’t listen to them, so they killed thousands. …” In other words, the first-born understood that they were the victims of their elders’ refusal to heed Hashem’s command to send Am Yisrael to freedom.

There are many in Israel, even within the government itself, who say that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should have gone “all the way” with Operation Protective Edge and ordered the army to destroy Hamas. But such an operation would have taken a very long time, killed or injured many more Israeli soldiers, and might have paved the way for an even more radical Islamic leadership in Gaza.

On the other hand, if the military operation succeeds in changing Arab perceptions, in getting more and more residents of Gaza to understand that they are being used by Hamas — which, as Eid says, “needs these deaths in order to claim victory … to accrue more money and more arms” — this could lead to the terror group’s natural demise.

It’s too early to know whether these encouraging signs of change will catch fire with the Palestinian masses. But even if they don’t, it behooves the international community to hear what the Arab world is starting to say about who did and who didn’t commit war crimes, and the need for a demilitarized Gaza, not just for the Jews of Israel, but for the Arabs of Gaza.