By Ioanna Moriatis
“The recent clashes in Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza have triggered a shift in international public opinion. It was a sudden reawakening that Palestine remains a very important issue in the conscience of Arabs and the world at large,” said Walid Kazziha, professor of political science.
To learn more about this resurgence of public interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, AUCToday spoke with faculty members about the factors driving this shift in international opinion and what these changes mean for Palestine, the Arab region and other key global players.
Revival of Public Concern
For some time before the latest eruption of tensions between Palestine and Israel, international attention had been directed elsewhere. Nabil Fahmy ’74, ’77, dean of AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, refers to this as a “dormant” period during which states refocused their energies toward domestic policy: “When things are calm, people assume problems have gone away. The Palestinian issue was being forgotten by the international community,” Fahmy said.
Bahgat Korany, professor of political science, similarly reflected on states prioritizing other issues during this dormant period. “In the last decade or so, other conflicts took over, such as Iran’s nuclear issue, the Arab Spring and its consequences, and some inter-Arab conflicts,” he explained.
However, the increased media coverage of the violence against Palestinian children and civilians raised public concerns. “It shed light on a strong violation of basic human rights for Palestinians and, therefore, resonated throughout the world, not only in the Middle East, especially among youth and human rights activists,” said Fahmy.
These human rights concerns have introduced a new lens through which the public has begun to understand the conflict in Palestine and Israel.
“The recent Israel-Hamas war brought back the conflict to its central place in the region but with a change,” explained Korany. “The new emphasis is on the conflict’s social dimension as a struggle between two communities rather than a traditional inter-state conflict.”
Repositioning the Palestinian Question
According to Kazziha, the global movement toward a humanitarian use of the term “apartheid” in rhetoric about Palestine. “There is a growing number of people who feel that the way Israel is treating Palestinians is similar or identical to the way there was apartheid in South Africa,” he said.
Ibrahim Awad, professor of practice in global affairs and director of AUC’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, shared similar sentiments. “Fifteen years ago, when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he was attacked, especially in the United States, for using the word apartheid in the title,” said Awad, explaining that this characterization of the treatment inflicted by Israel on the Palestinian people is justified by its policies toward them. “In contrast, there’s wide acceptance of this term now; at least it is discussed.”
“The Palestinian issue is now a question of human rights: the right to self-determination, the right to live in peace, the right to life — all of these values.”
What exactly has sparked this shift in public perception? Kazziha explained that this transformation did not happen overnight but was rather the result of a set of gradual changes taking place around the globe over time. “Beneath the shift we have witnessed, there was a growing current that was slowly growing and gaining momentum around the world. When the time came and we had that eruption in public opinion, international conscience was directed toward the Palestinian issue,” said Kazziha. “As a result, a collective feeling and collective consciousness have been created, and it’s going to be very difficult to ignore this anymore.”
Some professors draw clear ties to the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the way it has shone a light on systems of social injustice around the globe. “At least in the American context, I think it’s important to put the question into the context of the success of Black Lives Matter activists in changing the way the public at large discusses and thinks about social justice and racial inequalities or, at the very least, the conversations to which the public is exposed,” explained Sean Lee, assistant professor of political science. “Many BLM activists are also involved in activism for Palestine and vice versa, and this connection has succeeded in reframing the discussion of Palestine and Israel as a discourse based on the struggle for equal rights.”
What This Means for Other Countries
The change in the public narrative of the conflict between Palestine and Israel across the globe has hinged on the values of human rights and social justice, but questions still remain as to the impact this recent breakout of violence is having — and will continue to have — on neighboring countries in the Arab region and international stakeholders, such as the United States, who have long intertwined themselves in Arab-Israeli relations.
As for Arab states, the recent events may prompt leaders to reconsider their responses and the measures that are necessary for maintaining a sense of stability in the region. “This mutation will reinforce the hands of the Arab actors who have been, since the genesis, direct parties to the conflict,” reflected Awad. “It will reinforce their role in seeking some sort of settlement in the region because the continuation of this situation is detrimental to all the parties that are directly impacted: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It does not make the countries surrounding Palestine and Israel feel safe or comfortable in planning for the future because there is always the threat of reignited conflict.”
Korany explained that pressure from civil society is likely to shape how states respond in the future. “As Israeli occupation practices and discriminatory treatment of Palestinians continue, Israel’s relations with Arab states will suffer from a cold peace,’” he said.
Kazziha reflected on the critical role Egypt has adopted.
“Out of all these Arab parties, like the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — all those who have built a new relationship with Israel — none were able to take on the role that Egypt has played as a mediator between Palestine and Israel,” said Kazziha.
Reflecting on the United States, Lee explained that shifts in public opinion have not translated into immediate policy changes. “In general, U.S. financial, military and diplomatic support have meant that Israel never really has any external incentives to change the way it treats Palestinians,” Lee noted. However, he added that despite slow shifts in perspective within the U.S. government, there is a chance for change. “Public stances being taken by legislators like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and Bernie Sanders, among others, are a reflection of movement on that front,” he said.
What Is to Come?
Following the brokering of a ceasefire between Palestine and Israel and the announcement of the new coalition government in Israel, attention has now turned toward the future of the conflict and the steps needed to develop a settlement.
For Fahmy, there are four tracks that should be prioritized simultaneously moving forward: ensuring that the ceasefire continues, highlighting Israeli violations of human rights in international fora, emphasizing discussions of the rights of Israelis of Arab origin who have been treated as second-class citizens, and recodifying the tenets of the peace process.
“Over time, there was an attempt to water down the tenets of the peace process: that occupation and the acquisition of territory by force are unacceptable, that a two-state solution should be the foundation based on the 1967 borders with some negotiations, the right of return or compensation, and the right of security for all,” he said. “Over time, people have started to ignore these as facts.”
Fahmy further argued that an international response to the conflict should aim toward a comprehensive resolution. “Let’s not try to deal with it one by one — security versus identity versus Jerusalem versus territory versus right of return. Let’s try to put it all as a package on the table at the same time. So it would be the solution versus peace or the lack of a solution versus continued conflict. I think if it’s placed this way, both sides will respond much more constructively.”
As for the new Israeli government, faculty have differing opinions. On the one hand, some are hesitant in pre-empting any changes given the political leanings of members of the coalition. As Korany explained, “This heterogeneous government will continue to be fragile, surviving with only one-vote majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu will continue to be influential in the opposition, and the impact of orthodox Haredi Jews could pressure this government to carry out their settlement policy and attempts at ethnic cleansing.”
On the other hand, other faculty members shared more optimism, though still expressing reservations about any signs of change in the near future. Kazziha sees the potential for shifts in opinion stemming from within Israel. “The shaking of the ground has already taken place,” he said. “Yes, Bennett is a right-wing Israeli politician, but he’s also in coalition with the left-wing, the center and other right-wing groups. The earlier, very determined, almost fascist attitude of Netanyahu has faced its last days. A growing number of Israelis will become aware and conscious of the Palestinian plight, and we’ve seen part of that recently during the demonstrations in Jerusalem. It’s not an overwhelming movement at the moment, but I think it’s going to gain more and more ground.”
According to Fahmy, this change in government will not have a direct impact so much as it will present an opportunity for change. “Arabs, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians need to take advantage of that by raising the normative aspect of the conflict and of these rights, as well as the political side of the problem. So if things calm down, people’s attention won’t sway away from these elements. It’s important for one to seize the opportunity,” he said.
While Awad similarly does not expect any direct changes to come with the new coalition government in Israel, citing its far-right makeup and fragility, he does see change from within Israel, as well as continued shifts around the globe both at the institutional and civil society levels, as necessary for resolution-building to succeed. “We need changes at different levels with an increased weight and affirmation of the new narrative that is now becoming more accepted: the narrative of Palestinian people deprived of land, state and rights who live under an apartheid occupation regime,” he said.
Although long-term action and change are tough to predict, most faculty members agree that the shift in public perspective spurred by the recent acts of aggression and repression imposed on Palestine is a significant one. As Awad noted, however, resistance to this shift by Israel’s friends remains active and forceful. Nevertheless, he sees potential for the future translation of this shift in narrative into policy action. “This movement has every chance to continue growing. Of course, it will not grow only with wishes and hopes because the opponents of this new mutation will fight it, but this is a movement that is broad enough not to be vanquished easily. This has been purposive action; it was not haphazard. So as this movement continues for some time, it will be reflected in policy — no question about that. But when will this happen and how? This is still an open question.”
For Kazziha, despite the potential for resistance, this recent reawakening of public interest in the conflict has certainly raised the stakes of the conflict and reignited a sense of hope for the future. “I’m so persuaded now by the righteousness of the Palestinian issue than ever before, and I’ve always supported the Palestinians. I’ve been committed to that cause since I was a young boy,” reflected Kazziha. “Today, I consciously see that the issue itself has taken a turn where, for me, it’s not anymore a question of whether Palestinians are going to gain their rights. They’re going to get what they deserve, which is their human right. The change is very substantial and, I believe, irreversible.”