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4th Mar 2024

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Why EU and Arab governments are uneasy on Palestine protests

  • In Europe, even as many governments remain cautious about any open criticism of Israel and have steered clear of joining South Africa's legal case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, popular solidarity with Palestine remains high (Photo: Alisdare Hickson)
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European and Arab governments are equally uneasy about the continuing Palestinian solidary protests which are held across their cities every week.

The reason for their discomfort is simple: while the demonstrators are demanding an immediate end to Israel's ongoing devastation and starvation of Gaza, the protests are also a call for global justice and an end to racial inequality, including the selective application of internationally agreed human rights standards.

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In Europe, even as many governments remain cautious about any open criticism of Israel and have steered clear of joining South Africa's legal case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, popular solidarity with Palestine remains high.

In the first such big demonstration of 2024, hundreds of protesters staged a sit-in on Westminster Bridge in London on 6 January, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Similar protests were held in Dublin, Oslo, Copenhagen, Groningen and other European cities.

Protesters face varying degrees of government restrictions in Europe.

Incidents of police violence and arrests recently prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, to warn governments to ensure a safe and enabling space for participation and debate and not "unduly restrict critical commentary about the conflict, or expressions of solidarity with either Israelis or Palestinians."

Meanwhile, even as some Arab states seek closer rapprochement with Israel, the region is witnessing what many see as a repetition of the now decade-old 'Arab Spring'.

This time, however, the focus of pro-Palestine protesters is a mix of internal demands for reform and — as in Europe — on an anti-imperial and postcolonial agenda.

In a vehement backlash against the Abraham accords, protests in the Arab world are an uncomfortable reminder to countries like Morocco and the United Arab Emirates that their normalisation of ties with Israel has never won the 'hearts and minds' of Arab societies and that the Palestinian cause, marginalised in the last years, has reemerged as paramount to the Arab political consciousness.

Additionally, companies perceived as friends of Israel and the Israel Defence Forces, including Starbucks, McDonalds, Carrefour and Puma, have seen their sales drop dramatically in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia or Jordan.

In both regions, the mainstream commentary around them have so far largely focused on public outrage at the devastating humanitarian consequences of Israel's bombing and illegal blockade on Gaza.

Unjust post-colonial order

However, as the protests grow in number and size, it is becoming increasingly clear that Palestine has emerged as a forceful symbol of a global struggle against colonialism, Western hypocrisy and an unjust postcolonial order. For many the war is a potent reminder that the foundations of Israel are rooted in a colonial project that continues to subject Palestinians to military occupation, land dispossession and unequal rights.

This shift in the pro-Palestinian discourse as a question not of religion or territory but of a deep historical injustice is reflected in the stance taken by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, who now insists that there can be "No climate justice on occupied land."

It is also reflected in the pro-Palestinian global narrative which sees a connection between Israel and Western colonialism and views the Palestinians' ongoing resistance to Israel as the world's last anti-colonial struggle.

The 2020 launch of the Black Lives Matter movement has heightened the awareness among African Americans of the connection between the discrimination they face and the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In 2021, the BLM movement released a statement announcing solidarity with Palestinians and murals of George Floyd appeared in Gaza and the West Bank.

But there is more.

As journalist Nesrine Malik has noted, "there is a universal simplicity to the (Israel-Palestine) conflict that transcends political ideology — about the fundamental human right to full nationhood, to live in your home in safety and with dignity. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, his visit to the occupied territories revealed just how "uncomplicated it actually is…to understand the basic morality of holding a people in a situation where they don't have basic rights.

In 2022, Amnesty International said its new investigation shows that Israel imposes a system of oppression and domination against Palestinians across all areas under its control: in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and against Palestinian refugees, in order to benefit Jewish Israelis. This amounts to apartheid as prohibited in international law.

Like their counterparts in the US, many younger Europeans, progressives and people of colour acknowledge the link between Palestine and their demands for racial justice. But EU policymakers have not made such a connection.

In some ways, EU governments' inability to take a fresh look at the Middle East through the colonial and anti-racist lens reflects their own uneasy relationship with European Muslims.

However, if they are to overcome the reputational damage they have incurred because of their support for Israel, EU states will have to recognize that Palestinian demands for equality and justice are linked to a wider global struggle for equal rights for all — and to their own citizens' calls for an end to inequality and discrimination.

Hypocrisy abounds also in Arab states. One example: a recent picture of Tunisian president Kais Saied tenderly holding a wounded Palestinian child who survived the bombing in Gaza and reached Tunisian hospitals which contrasts starkly with the horrifying image of a Cameroonian mother and her nine-year old child who were found dead close to the Tunisian-Libyan border in August after having been violently deported from Tunisia.

Whether European and Arab governments like it or not, however, their double standards and hypocrisy on human rights are now clearly visible.

Equally importantly, the Palestinian question which has long been part of an interconnected struggle for self-determination and equality has now been incorporated into the global anti-colonial movement and demands for racial, social and political justice. In both Europe and the Arab world, governments face the challenging of recognising it as such — and developing an appropriate policy response.

Author bio

Yasmine Akrimi is north Africa analyst at the Brussels International Center. Shada Islam is an EUobserver columnist, independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.

Disclaimer

This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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