x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

When the war ends, will Arabs keep talking about Gaza?

When Arabs meet these days, they rarely discuss the plight of the Palestinians. Whatever the reasons for this, it must change.

As the Gaza strip is pounded by the Israeli army, and Hamas and Israel are at each other's throats in deadly exchanges of rockets, it is again "OK" to talk about Palestine.

Non-Arabs assume every Arab constantly talks about the Palestinian cause, but it has actually become somewhat unpopular over the last decade to express open support for Palestinians in their fight.

I've often seen Arabs get uncomfortable or go silent when the topic comes up in public venues. At a friend's majlis I once witnessed several passionate Palestinian activists told by other Arabs to "keep it down". Sure, Arabs in theory support Palestinian rights. They just don't always want to dwell on it.

Perhaps this is due to the length of time Palestinians have struggled. One can't help but become jaded by the same old slogans when even the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, concedes he would like to visit his place of birth but would never want to live there.

Until the early 1990s, schools in the Arab world held special lectures and included Palestine in their morning assemblies and festivals. There are still some of these events today, but not as many.

I have recited many poems for Palestine, and have regularly watched with my classmates the same video set up by our teachers in Saudi Arabia. It tells the story of Palestine from the beginning (how Palestine was mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphs) to where it is today. We would feel passionately about a place we have never visited, just for the sake of our "brothers and sisters" there.

But today, ask an Arab child or teenager about Palestine and most won't know anything about it. Unless, of course, their parents are Palestinian. Yet even then it's possible to hear an indifferent tone.

"It is not our battle, it is the battle of our grandparents," a teenage daughter of a Palestinian friend told me this week. "Why should we be pulled down into that abyss?" Her brother, a university student, added: "Israel is ruling everything - most of our products and business - so we have to work with them or be left behind."

Valid points, but I am from a different generation, where we regularly raised funds and sent aid to Palestine. Even then we never felt like we were doing enough.

Dictators that once ruled Palestine's neighbours are gone, and the Arab Spring brought sweeping change to Palestine's neighbourhood. But when it comes to the Palestinian suffering, and Arab support for their cause, it's all too familiar.

According to the latest figures, the death toll in Gaza has topped 130 and includes 24 children. Over 1,000 have been wounded. But it is always the Israelis killed (there have been five) that are in headlines and in a bigger type-size in major newspapers and media channels around the world. It is always Israel's "self defence", or the rationale that strikes are justified to remove "terrorists".

When I reported in Lebanon, it was interesting to see how an Israeli's life or body was treated by Israel. For instance, in January 2004, Israel and Hizbollah conducted a historic prisoner swap mediated by Germany, in which the Jewish state released more than 400 prisoners in exchange for the return of an Israeli reserve colonel and businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, and the remains of three Israeli soldiers.

Nonetheless, something has changed this time around. Top figures from Israel and Hamas are exchanging heated and insulting words on Twitter, something the general public never had access to in previous wars.

Social media has indeed succeeded in returning the Palestinians' plight to Arab consciousness, for the time being. I've seen friends add a Palestinian flag to their Facebook profile, or tweet about Palestinian children and the need to help them. I have even seen staunch pro-regime Syrians, Gulf nationals who tend to remain neutral on political issues, call out for help for "Gaza's children".

But another ceasefire, and more condemnation by world leaders, won't change anything on the ground. We need more gutsy reactions, and serious political stances, if anything is to change for Palestine.



On Twitter: @Arabianmau