A Survey of the Arab Spring’s Impact on Israel & Palestine

Tunisians attend a 2014 rally marking the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Introduction

On the eve of December 17, 2010, Israel’s security was in a place of relative strength. In September, Israel had joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), signaling an increasing international willingness to cooperate with Israel. Worries about Hamas, the ruling party of Gaza and its surroundings, had been diminished in the wake of the 2008–09 Gaza War. In the aftermath of the war, rocket attacks from Gaza against Israeli targets and Israeli operations against its counterparts in Gaza were sparse, but peace talks remained cold (Said Aly et al., 2013).

The war had been a decisive military and strategic victory for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government, especially on the heels of the military stalemate against Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. However, Israel did not feel immune. Fears over Iran’s regional influence, and its favorable attitude towards Hamas and Hezbollah, persisted in the minds of the Israeli conscience, but Israel was, at this point, seen as the most powerful state in the region (Panayiotides, 2012).

Israel had bolstered its sense of security through an alliance with Turkey in the 1990s, which had common priorities and enemies with the Israelis. The alliance had gone cold in recent months after an Israeli raid on a civilian ship resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv after Israel’s refusal to apologize (Panayiotides, 2012).

In the West Bank, access and movement under the government of Fatah’s Salam Fayyad began to increase in 2009–10, prompting steady economic growth. Hamas’ Gaza, on the other hand, was stagnant; restricted access and border crossings halted any potential for economic growth (Said Aly et al., 2013). Hamas’ credibility had floundered after the 2008–09 war and they still yearned for more support from other Arab states.

Attitudes around the region would swiftly change, though, at the behest of a charged release of discontent across the Arab world.

On December 17, a Tunisian street vendor reached his personal breaking point. The vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, had been selling produce for years amidst “petty bureaucratic tyranny that many in the region [knew] all too well,” (Ryan, 2011). This tyranny was emblematic of many neighboring states leading up to 2011.

That day, “A policewoman confronted him on the way to market. She returned to take his scales from him, but Bouazizi refused to hand them over. They swore at each other, the policewoman slapped him and, with the help of her colleagues, forced him to the ground. The officers took away his produce and his scale,” (Ryan, 2011).

In response, Bouazizi went to the local municipality building and demanded to meet with an official, only to hear that the official was in a meeting and would not be available. Bouazizi later returned to the building and set himself on fire in front of it. He died from his burns weeks later.

Ten days after Bouazizi’s death, public pressures forced Tunisia’s longtime president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country. This was the first in a series of regime changes that characterized what we now know as the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was a series of revolutions in the Arab World from 2010 to 2012 that altered the balance of power in the Middle East. It stemmed from a multitude of different problems, mainly around the discontent of the masses against their governments, many of which had been ruled by a single individual or group for decades.

Decisive public protest swept across the region following Bouazizi’s immolation, targeted against their own governments. There was no singular platform or leader behind it; rather, the true unifying characteristic of the Arab Spring was government disapproval. The volume of frustration and methods of expression varied between countries, but the frustration was the same. Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia faced calls for a new ruler, while monarchies like Morocco, Jordan, Oman and Bahrain faced calls for fairer governance (Kumaraswamy, 2011).

In these states, the disconnect between rulers and their subjects had simply grown too massive to overcome. The outrage, tipped off by Bouazizi, was expressed uniformly on levels not seen before, and by people from across all walks of life — not simply political opponents or activist-led organizations.

Strangely, some protests were not quelled by the military, even though many leaders at this time had a military background or well-established connections to the military through years of cooperation and overindulgent funding. Given this, it would have been customary for military leaders to choose loyalty, but it did not happen in Egypt and Tunisia (Kumaraswamy, 2011). More conventional military action occurred in Syria, Libya and Yemen, where militaries saw their survival as tied to their regimes.

Similarly, some leaders recognized the latitude of the moment and decided to relinquish their hold on their power. As mentioned earlier, Tunisia’s Ben Ali gave up his position shortly after the protests dawned. Other leaders decided that they would fight for their power. Governments in Libya, Syria, and Yemen took arms against the rebels that sought their reconstruction.

However, relatively little focus has been given to the area’s historically most contested region, because neither Israel nor Palestine experienced a major government overhaul as a result of the Arab Spring (Dessì, 2012).

A Muted Arab Spring in Palestine

Palestinian reactions in the region were more subtle than in Egypt, the neighbor on the other side of the Suez. However, this does not mean that Palestinians were unaffected by regional sentiments.

Witnessing the toppling of authoritarian regimes in the region caused Palestinian youths to organize a similarly-constructed protest on March 15, 2011. The aim of the protest, termed the March 15 movement, was to publicly call on the two Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah, to reconcile their political differences and unite for the broader Palestinian cause (Dessì, 2012).

At this point in time, Fatah controlled the West Bank, and Hamas controlled Gaza. Several key ideological differences separated the two: Fatah’s secular background contrasted with Hamas’s Islamist motivations and Fatah’s diplomatic approach to Israel clashed with Hamas’s platform of armed resistance (Al Tahhan, 2017).

In addition to public pressure incited by the protests, both Hamas and Fatah lost their main external backers in the Arab Spring’s wake: Mubarak’s departure was a blow to Fatah, and escalating violence in Syria forced Hamas to desert its headquarters in Damascus. The weakening of international support for both groups played the main role in the signing of an eventual reconciliation agreement by both parties in May 2011 (Dessì, 2012).

However, reconciliation efforts stalled as the two parties struggled to build trust. As a result, agreed-upon elections in the West Bank and Gaza were postponed. Facing dwindling support from Palestinians as a partial result of their fruitless efforts, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (P.A.) turned its view to the international scene. In September 2011, the P.A. petitioned the United Nations for full-statehood status. A year later and after much discussion, the P.A. was formally upgraded to non-member observer status in the U.N. despite Israeli and U.S. opposition. With that said, Palestine still remained occupied by Israel in many areas. Albeit short of reaching its original goal, the international recognition of a Palestinian state was a tremendous victory for the P.A.

Egypt’s Arab Spring

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was overthrown in February 2011 after 29 years in office (Panayiotides, 2012). Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, rose to power in his absence, with Mohamed Morsi serving as the new president. The group’s rule over the state was characterized by its marginalization of “democratic forces,” which Morsi ignored, as demonstrated by the passage of legislation without constitutionally-required judicial oversight (Gunaratna, p. 106, 2015).

As a consequence of the rising protests against their rule, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on the country was ended in a 2013 coup d’etat by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who became president in 2014. This marked the second time in less than three years that the Egyptian people saw a forceful regime change.

Al-Sisi’s government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring them a terrorist group and forcing the political wing of the organization to disband. In 2015, Morsi was imprisoned, and the Muslim Brotherhood literature was banned, inciting anger among some members, who took up arms against al-Sisi’s government (Gunaratna, 2015).

Egypt’s revolving door gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood, only to strike the group down after its malignant rule was toppled. The instability that occurred in the wake of Mubarak’s exit (and the precedent that his removal set) allowed for that to happen.

Another result of the instability inspired by the Arab Spring was the emergence of extremist terrorist groups in the country (Gunaratna, 2015). In 2012, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis set up training camps in the Sinai. The group was responsible for attacking Jewish settlements near the border of Gaza, which included a September 2012 attack on a group of IDF soldiers overseeing the maintenance of the Israel-Egypt border fence.

After changing allegiances from al-Qaeda to ISIS, the group rebranded itself as ISIS Sinai Province in 2014 and continued attacks on Egyptian and Western military targets. Its strength was bolstered by the defection of several high-ranking Egyptian military and law enforcement personnel.

Violence between the armed terrorist groups in the Sinai and Egypt has not been limited to within the Egyptian border. In July 2015, ISIS Sinai launched rockets into Gaza, stating their intentions to uproot Israel and Fatah, a secular Palestinian movement. Attacks by various Islamist groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood) in the region have continued since, albeit at a lower level.

Egypt has been unrelenting in its retaliation against these groups, costing many civilians in the region. According to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch, “hostilities in North Sinai, with sustained fighting between organized forces, have risen to the level of a non-international armed conflict, and that warring sides have violated international laws of war as well as local and international human rights laws,” (“Egypt: Serious Abuses, War Crimes in North Sinai”, 2019).

In Egypt, the Arab Spring spawned an opportunity for al-Qaeda to invest resources in Egypt, as seen by the rise of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. The threat of domestic terrorism had been existent in past decades, but the Mubarak government had been able to manage these threats. When Mubarak stepped down in wake of Arab Spring protests, this capability was erased, and the instability that ensued allowed for the emergence of these groups. Even years after the Arab Spring’s inception, Egypt did not truly control all of its territory, especially in the Sinai (Susser, 2014).

Egypt’s Effects on Israel

For Israel, the turmoil in Egypt frightened the Israeli government, whose peace had been sustained since the Camp David Accords. Since that time, Egypt had, by and large, been Israel’s closest Arab ally (Dessì, 2012). For all the domestic problems that Mubarak’s presidency created, one silver lining of his rule was that the leadership of Egypt was a known quantity and the line of communication between the states was stable.

The fall of the Mubarak government erased this, forcing Israel to wait and hope that the new regime would remain committed to peace. Despite Egypt’s weakening combative infrastructure, the threat of an irrational attack on Israel would still be a predicament for Israelis.

Despite ideological differences, in 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood announced its acknowledgment of the peace treaty with Israel (Miller, 2012). Still, various anti-Israeli incidents committed by Egyptian citizens in Egypt worried Israel. However, relations between Israel and Egypt eventually transformed into communicative peace after the Muslim Brotherhood’s departure from power (Aran and Fleischmann, 2019).

One effect of the Sinai insurgency was its potential to provide Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other militant groups in Gaza “with an immune hinterland for operations against Israel, a secure weapons smuggling route, and a zone for other activities, which Israel would be most hesitant to attack, to avoid undermining the already fragile relationship with Egypt,” (Susser, p. 234, 2014).

Thankfully, these fears did not materialize into a serious conflict between Israel and Sinai militants. Rather, in the years since Egypt’s last regime change, Israel has watched as fighting between Egypt and Islamist groups in the Sinai has persisted. The fighting between the two sides has occasionally spilled over with minor consequences for Israel, but Egypt remains a trusted partner for Israel from a foreign policy standpoint.

Israel’s Regional Concerns

A main Israeli concern in the wake of the Arab Spring was its potential to help establish new ideologies of pan-Arabism, anti-imperialism and Islamism (Amour, p. 299, 2017). To clarify, Islamism is defined as the belief that Islamic laws and concepts should play a central role in the public life and method of governance of a state (Gaub, 2014). This worried Israel because most of the past conflicts waged against Israel had been fought by parties bearing those ideologies.

Governments in Egypt (as seen earlier), Qatar, Tunisia, Palestine and Morocco emerged as Islamist-leaning (Amour, 2017). The pre-existing authoritarian regimes were less worrying than a potential pan-Islamic alliance because Israel had become accustomed to the patterns of those regimes. Israel saw democratic Islamist governments as more of a potential security threat because groups holding those ideologies had antagonized Israel. As a result, the potential for conflict was truly unknown, depending on the level of priority given to the Palestinian issue.

Strategists also believed that the emerging Islamist-based leaderships would promote an anti-Western ideology and pledge support for Hamas and Hezbollah (Amour, 2017). Israel also feared that these new regimes would renounce previous peace deals.

This scenario never became a reality for Israel. Leaderships that may have looked to pose a threat to Israel were far too concerned with holding their own power and battling domestic opponents, thus weakening their capacities for anti-Israeli action, as will be discussed later.

In fact, Israel saw itself partnering with conservative Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Al-Sisi’s Egyptian government.

On the international diplomatic level, Israel saw a thawing of relationships with many Arab states. These developments were fostered by merging common strategic interests in the wake of the political upheaval in the region. Foreign policy behavior towards Egypt and Jordan exemplified this trend, as Jordan’s King Abdullah II deemed his relationship with Netanyahu “very strong” in 2013. In 2016, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged the existence of secret communication channels between Israel and states in the Gulf and North Africa (Aran and Fleischmann, p. 631, 2019).

Syria–Israel Relations

Syria underwent large-scale popular protests similar to those in Egypt, which Bashar al-Assad’s government answered with violent crackdowns. Reports of Islamist elements taking shape in the Syrian opposition concerned Israel, which shares a border with Syria (Dessì, 2012). These concerns stemmed from the idea that a failed Syrian state would not be able to guarantee security along its border with Israel.

Eventually, these concerns became somewhat of a reality. As the Syrian Civil War emerged, several incidents between Israel and Syrian entities occurred on their mutual ceasefire line, straining relations between the two states. Despite this, Israel has maintained strict neutrality with regard to the Syrian conflict. Rather, it watched as its traditional enemies (Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran) sustained an armed conflict against Islamist opposition.

Incidents on the Syrian-Israeli border are similar to incidents that have occurred on the Egyptian-Israeli border. The major difference, though, is that in Egypt any conflict has been spurned solely by Islamist militant groups rather than the Egyptian government. Much like in Egypt, though, these incidents are simply incidents.

Declining Palestinian Influence

Aside from their victory on the U.N. stage, Palestinians did not see the international support that they expected in the wake of the Arab Spring (Finkelstein, Rabbani, and Stern-Weiner, 2015). Many foresaw a potential shift in momentum for Palestinian self-sovereignty because of the popular Arab protests, especially with the reaction garnered by Israel’s 2012 conflict in the Gaza Strip.
During the operation, Arab leaders “beat a path to Gaza City amidst intense bombing to demonstrate their solidarity with not only the Palestinian people but a Hamas government most of them had previously spurned,” (Finkelstein et al., p. 23, 2015). Secondly, Israel found its operation limited by Turkey and Egypt’s support of Hamas. This support was reaffirmed by public pro-Palestinian sentiments (with regards to the conflict) across the region.

The aforementioned political upheaval of Arab states had several consequences, but perhaps the largest one was the reduction of diplomatic focus in Palestine. As these states fell into turmoil, their capacities for active foreign relations ministries dwindled (Finkelstein et al., 2015). So, instead of the swift surge in support for sovereignty that Palestinians hoped for, internal strife abroad drastically reduced other states’ abilities to help Palestinians accomplish their cause.

As mentioned earlier, both Fatah and Hamas had lost their international strongholds with the ousting of Mubarak in Egypt and the severance of ties to Syria, respectively. Fatah now found itself increasingly reliant on the U.S. As a consequence of the fallout with Syria, Hamas was ostracized by the Iranian government (Finkelstein et al., 2015).

Seeking a new ally, Hamas invested in its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and aligned itself with the Morsi government in Egypt. This proved to be a miscalculation. After the fall of the Morsi government, Hamas found itself with no significant external support, having fallen out of favor with Iran, Syria, and Egypt.

Additionally, the catastrophes in Syria gained international attention and retained that attention as ISIS emerged. As a result, the Palestinian issue was further buried in the news by the events occurring next door in Syria.

These changes were exemplified by the 2014 Gaza War, in which Israel launched a 51-day attack on Hamas through the air and on the ground. Hamas’s tactical advantages halted a total Israeli victory, but Israel faced far less pressure from neighboring countries than it had two years before in the previous Hamas-Israel conflict. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Egypt openly called for Hamas’s removal from power (Finkelstein et al., 2015).

Concluding Thoughts

In its early stages, the Arab Spring posed a potentially power-altering threat to Israel. Reformist Islamist sentiment and the rise of these democratically-aligned groups in the face of struggling authoritarian governments signaled a changing regional order, one where Israel would no longer be the dominant power in the region. Palestinians saw the uprisings in the region and anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt as a momentum-building force that could align with their aspirations for self-sovereignty.

In theory, these new democracies would open routes to more prominent roles in international politics, able to more staunchly hold Israel accountable for its expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the consequences of operations in Gaza that Israel would later launch. A path emerged for a potential pan-Arab, pan-Islamist bloc in the region, a group that would invest in the Palestinian cause and stand against Israel.

After several years, though, it was safe to say that these opportunities did not fully materialize (Amour, 2017). After June 2013, Israel saw its security concerns decrease. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood fell at the hands of counter-revolutionary forces, Jordan withstood its own popular backlash, while Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran (three traditional enemies of Israel) descended into war with ISIS (another enemy of Israel).

On the other side of the coin, the Palestinian resolve fell to its weakest after the events of 2013. Both had lost crucial regional allies. For Hamas, the fall of Morsi turned Egypt from a significant ally to a hated enemy overnight. Its fallout with Syria and subsequent severing of ties by the Iranian government left the group without the external backing it previously had.

For Fatah, the fall of the Morsi government left the group without the support it needed. The group opted to pursue reconciliation with Hamas to mixed degrees of success; despite steps towards this, in 2014 Israel foiled a Hamas coup attempt intended to topple P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. Additionally, Palestinian elections have not been held since 2006. Most importantly, the revolutions and wars inspired by Arab Spring protests relegated the issue of Palestinian sovereignty to a secondary role in regional discussions.

All in all, Israeli and Palestinian expectations of the Arab Spring protests did not match the outcomes that were produced years later. Despite earning international recognition, the Palestinians remained divided and devoid of momentum, while Israel still found itself at the forefront of the Middle East’s power dynamic.

References

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