Turbulence in May: Israel and the Arab World as Reflected in Online Discourse

Michael Barak reviews the responses in the Arab world to recent events involving Israel.

Caricature depicting the tension between Israel and Iran as an illusion, from Twitter
Caricature depicting the tension between Israel and Iran as an illusion, from Twitter

The month of May was fraught with turbulent events that began with the disclosure of Iranian nuclear documents by Israel, and continued with an Israeli air strike against Iranian missile bases in Syria, the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the riots at the border fence with Gaza. The discourse involving users from the Arab world on social media illustrates their contradictory attitudes towards Israel, which are influenced by the respective interests guiding various groups. Israel’s struggle against the Iranians is consistently and resolutely supported by Arab users, especially from the Gulf states, while the issues of Jerusalem and the riots at the fence provoke strong opposition from Islamist and Palestinian users.

The exposure of Iranian nuclear files by Israel on April 30 aroused resentment among users in light of Israel’s determination to prevent Muslim states from acquiring nuclear weapons despite possessing them itself. However, more than a few Arab users, mainly from the Gulf states, defended Israel’s right to possess nuclear weapons. For example, Syrian users who oppose the Assad regime stressed that there is a profound difference between Israel and the Arab countries regarding the possession of non-conventional weapons. From their perspective, the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons to slaughter its own people, while Israel has nuclear weapons to deter its enemies.[1]

In light of the growing tensions between Iran and Israel, Arab users, especially those from the Gulf states and Egypt, have increased their support for efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and curb its yearning to establish itself in the region.[2] One Saudi user expressed this sentiment well when he wrote, “Iran is a dangerous enemy of the Arabs and of Israel. This is not to say that Israel a dove of peace, rather it is an enemy, but now we have a common enemy.”[3] Another user from the Gulf wrote, “Israel is a wise enemy who does not act against our borders... while the tentacles of impure Iran stretch out against us to the north, south and east... Either we cut off those tentacles by ourselves or in an international alliance in which Israel is a member.”[4] A user from Abu Dhabi, who lives in Germany, went even further: “We stand behind you [Bibi Netanyahu] and pray for you and your army. We will rejoice in your victory over the Persians and Lebanese Hezbollah.”[5]

More than a few users rejected the possibility that Iran might attack Israel following the exposure of its documents and the Israeli attacks against its bases in Syria. They claimed that Israel and Iran have been waging psychological war for 15 years without any real intention to fight each other, and are only interested in strengthening their positions at home. Others assumed that Iran could not allow itself to become embroiled in a war with Israel because it is “up to its neck” in Syria and with “killing Sunnis.” From their perspective, even if war did break out between the two countries, it would be limited and might lead to the Muslims’ defeat, because Israel has consistently demonstrated military supremacy over its enemies. Alternatively, others predicted that any war would be fought by sub-state actors acting on behalf of Iran and Israel.[6] The voice of Islamic users was not absent from the discourse. Most conspicuously, these users pointed an accusing finger at those Arab governments who support and provide a safety net for “the Zionist entity” because of their interest in using Israel as a tool to strike Iran and any other enemy they might have.[7]

While there were quite a few sympathetic reactions to Israel when responding to its struggle against the Iranians, the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem drew sharp criticism of both Israel and the US, coming mostly from Palestinian users, although some moderate criticism was voiced by users from the Gulf States. Palestinian users used hashtags like “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine” and “Islamic Jerusalem forever.”[8] At the same time, the discourse was characterized by self-flagellation and criticism against the various Muslim regimes. From the vantage point of many users, the transfer of the embassy was a serious failing and a symptom pointing to a crisis of leadership in the Arab world, one that demands a self-examination because it showed that the international community was able to ignore Muslims’ voice on the issue of Jerusalem. According to one user, “the transfer of the embassy proves that we are dead peoples, and have no value in this world, we have no right to live! We are witness to the promise of a new Balfour declaration.”[9] A user from Gaza disseminated an accusatory post: “Arab rulers, you have abandoned the people to defend the first Qibla[10] themselves. You left the Palestinians unarmed, so that they would face death for the sake of our al-Aqsa Mosque... but what discourages us and quashes our faith... is your suppression of the [Palestinian ethos] that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.”[11] Others stressed that the Arab League, the representative of the Arabs, had never benefited them, or acted for the benefit of Arab solidarity; worse, it has become a tool in the hands of the West.[12]

The users also harshly criticized Iran, Turkey and Hamas, despite their public opposition to the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem. Some users accused Iran of preferring to use the Shi‘i militias in Syria and Iraq to weaken the Sunnis’ power, rather than focusing on the issue of Jerusalem. Other users accused Turkish President Erdoğan of hypocrisy because his belligerent statements against Israel, which he uses to rake in political capital, are actually worthless because he did not close the Israeli embassy in Ankara, and is careful to strengthen Turkey’s economic ties with Israel. One user from Morocco declared that Erdoğan excels primarily at fomenting terrorism in Syria and killing civilians, children, women and the elderly.[13] The Hamas leadership was also accused of encouraging acts of terrorism, mainly on Egyptian soil, instead of focusing on the Jews,[14] and of unwillingness to promote a political arrangement with Israel, a refusal that paved the way for the transfer of the foreign embassies to Jerusalem.[15]

The harsh criticism of Israel within the Palestinian social media discourse intensified following the demonstrations at the border fence. Again, criticism was also directed at Arab rulers, primarily Saudi Arabia, due to their rapprochement with Israel.[16] Many users, mostly Palestinians and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, called on the Arab rulers including Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to cut-off their ties with Israel because of its “war crimes” against the Palestinians, while others accused them of betraying the Muslim nation and selling their souls to the United States and Israel.[17] One user from Tunisia described the Arab statesmen as “traitors and dishonorable people, especially the House of Sa’ud that arrogantly squanders the money of Allah.”[18] Another user suggested, “because the Arab rulers have abandoned the issue of Palestine, it is better for the Arab peoples to show initiative, and express solidarity with the Palestinian people by boycotting Israeli and American products.”[19] Other users concurred that in the absence of an appropriate response from the Arab regimes, it would be better for the Muslim Arabs to protest.[20]

The declaration of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar on May 16, which stated that the movement is committed to avoiding armed conflict with Israel following the understandings reached between Hamas and Egypt, increased criticism against the movement’s leadership. It was described as a militia that does not shy away from “profiteering” from the lives of its people. A Palestinian user put it this way: “The blood of the martyrs has been spilled in vain and is perceived by [the leadership] as cheap blood... You are leaders who trade in blood.”[21] Some Palestinian users expressed longing for the movement’s previous leaders, like Ahmed Yassin, and accused the current leadership of being infected with “talkativeness.” Other users claimed that the Hamas leadership is not interested in the liberation of Palestine, but rather in perpetuating the Palestinian problem, while still others declared the failure of Muqawama [the idea of resistance], which empties the existence of Hamas as representative of the Palestinian people of any meaning.[22]

The discourse on social media networks presents the prevailing perception among users from various Arab countries, especially in the Gulf states, that Israel is an important ally in the campaign against Iran. It is possible that this is the reason that the issue of Jerusalem provoked only weak criticism among this group, in contrast to the belligerent opposition voiced by Palestinians in Gaza and Islamists, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The discourse also reveals public criticism of the Hamas movement, which is perceived by many Arabs, including Palestinians, as a failed leader that bears, to a large extent, responsibility for strengthening Jerusalem’s Jewish identity. At the same time, there is a clear realization that the Arab leadership has “declared bankruptcy” by its unwillingness to act resolutely for the interests of the Muslim nation. Therefore, there are calls for bottom-up change through advocacy and local initiatives that serve the interests of the Muslim nation.


[1] Facebook, May 1, 2018.

[2] Twitter, May 10, 2018. 

[3] Twitter, May 3, 2018. 

[5] Facebook, May 1, 2018. 

[6] Twitter, May 1, 2018; Facebook, May 2, 2018; Facebook, May 4, 2018. 

[7] Facebook, May 7, 2018. 

[8] #‏القدس_عاصمة_فلسطين_الأبدية; #القدس_للأبد_اسلامية; #القدس_تنادي_الشرفاء

[9] Facebook, May 14, 2018.

[10] The first direction of prayer in Islam, towards Jerusalem.

[11] Facebook, May 17, 2018.

[13] Facebook, May 16, 2018; Facebook, May, 18-19, 2018. 

[14] Ibid.

[15] Twitter, May 16, 2018.  

[16] #مسيره_العوده_الكبري; #مليونيه_العوده; مليونية_العودة_وكسر_الحصار، #نكبة70  

[17] Facebook, May 16, 2018.

[18] Facebook, May 16, 2018. 

[19] Facebook, May 14, 2018. 

[20] Facebook, May 14, 2018. 

[21] Facebook, May 16, 2018. 

[22] Facebook, May 16, 2018.