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OPINION

Benefit of the global doubt: Social media slamming Israel vs. governments mostly backing it

Two and a half months into Israel’s Sword of Iron operation in the Gaza Strip, the issue of international support for Israeli actions is getting increasingly acute, with nuances in the perception of the conflict fading into the background. Zeev Hanin, political studies professor at Bar-Ilan University, remarks: despite the overwhelming criticism of Israel on social media (including in the West), Israel has faced more support than condemnation from governments and heads of state.

RU

A schism of opinion

The tragedy of October 7 triggered an immediate wave of solidarity with and support for the Jewish state worldwide. Almost 100 nations came forward with official condemnation of Hamas’ aggression: not only Israel's allies and diplomatic partners but even a few countries that had no diplomatic relations with Tel-Aviv. However, as the land phase of the military operation unfolded, the criticism of Israel's actions also gained pace.

Thus, according to the late-November estimate by the Tel-Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), the governments of 59 countries placed the entire responsibility for the escalation on Hamas and supported the IDF unconditionally, whereas 39 supported mostly “the rights of the Palestinians” (though not necessarily Palestinian Islamists as such) and/or condemned Israel's measures. Finally, nine states declared the need for an effort toward an immediate “cessation of hostilities,” without explicitly taking sides, and another 102 states were among the “abstainers.” The weeks that followed saw little high-level change.

The overwhelming majority of those who support Israel wholeheartedly or with certain caveats (mostly concerning the humanitarian collapse in Gaza) are Western democracies and pro-Western, mainly pro-American regimes. Those who sided with Palestine's Arabic Islamists openly or de facto (by peddling the habitual narrative of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole”) are mostly Northern African and Middle Eastern nations, with the addition of neo-Marxist Latin American states.

Israel's supporters are mostly Western democracies and pro-Western, mainly pro-American regimes

The latter are the ones setting the tone on propagandist platforms of major global organizations, which almost inevitably feature an anti-Israeli majority due to the voting solidarity of the Arab and Muslim bloc and authoritarian third-world regimes. Among such platforms are the UN General Assembly and some of its functional subdivisions (UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and especially the Human Rights Council). The same goes for the International Committee of the Red Cross, a host of human rights organizations (varying in credibility), like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and other international forums of the kind.

However, the discussions of Israel's actions at these fora (as dismissive and biased as they may be) and their statements and resolutions are mostly lip service and aren't binding in nature. Meanwhile, the “responsible adults” – that is, the representatives of leading democracies at intergovernmental institutes that are considered to be the actual seats of global power, namely G7, G20, and the IMF – assume a considerably more careful position, which often differs from their stance at the UNGA.

Friends and allies

The controversy is manifest even more distinctly in Israel's bilateral relations with countries well-positioned to influence the balance of power on the global and regional political stage. Thus, Israel's chief partner and strategic ally, the U.S., communicated its official support in the war the Jewish state declared on Hamas immediately and on every level, from Joe Biden's widely-advertised statement in Jerusalem early in the war to steps made by U.S. Congress to support Israel (starting from the October 25 resolution passed by the House of Representatives in a 412-10 vote with six abstainers) and the response from the governments of individual states.

In an unconventional show of support, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis transferred drones, ammunition, and weapons to Israel at the request of the Israeli consul general in Miami. Even if we treat this step as part of DeSantis’ campaign to become a presidential candidate, along with his recent statements (like the one about America’s “critical” need to use taxpayers’ money to support Israel, its closest Middle Eastern friend and ally, instead of funding Ukraine, which, to his mind, European nations should do under their NATO obligations), the message he sent attests to the general level of support Israel is getting from this segment of America's political class and its voters.

Meanwhile, the EU's position came as a pleasant surprise for the Israeli authorities, who are accustomed to Brussels’ traditionally pro-Palestinian stance. On October 8, the very next day after the Hamas attack, the EU published a statement on behalf of 27 of its member states, unequivocally condemning the terrorists and pledging support for Israel. Shortly after, on October 19, over 90% of MEPs voted in favor of an unprecedented pro-Israeli resolution, which recognized Israel's right to self-defense and the need to destroy Hamas and called for an immediate liberation of all Israeli hostages captured by the terrorists and the inclusion of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Lebanon's Hezbollah in the EU list of terrorist groups. The European Commission issued a similar statement on October 26, 2023.

The EU's position came as a pleasant surprise for the Israeli authorities

Subsequent developments were determined by the progress of the IDF's ground operation in Gaza, which Hamas had turned, according to Israel's ambassador to the EU and NATO Haim Regev, into a single fortified military base, strewn with mines and missile launchers. Casualties and destruction are inevitable in such a setting, and their images have been broadcast by the global media 24/7, considerably impacting public opinion. As a result, support for Israel's actions from European leaders has become noticeably less unequivocal. Whereas in the first weeks of hostilities, the main diplomatic message of almost all EU members was firm support of Israel’s right to self-defense, early November saw more and more calls to consider the “humanitarian dimension” of the operation.

Eventually, the majority of European delegations (17 out of 27) supported the resolution that demanded an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” that was passed at a UNGA session on December 12, as compared to the voting on a similar resolution on October 26, when 15 European states abstained.

Nevertheless, we are yet to hear a consolidated EU demand that Jerusalem stop the hostilities immediately. To date, Israel has been receiving the greatest level of support and solidarity from its long-standing allies: Germany, the UK, and the former communist countries of Central Europe, especially the Czech Republic.

Israel has been receiving the greatest level of support and solidarity from Germany, the UK, and the Czech Republic

The American establishment is affected by the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza to a somewhat lesser extent: the Republicans still firmly stand with Israel, while the Democratic administration is under growing pressure from its party's left-liberal wing, which demands that Israel be forced to drastically reduce the scale of its military operation. Nevertheless, the Biden administration's policy of supporting Israel and the IDF in dismantling the Hamas infrastructure and regime in Gaza has yet to see material change. This is evidenced by the ongoing high-level dialog between the two countries, including multiple visits to Jerusalem by the Secretary of State, the heads of the National Security Council and the Pentagon, senators, congressmen, and other senior American politicians and officials.

Vox рopuli

Support for Israel's actions is, of course, strongly influenced by public sentiment in democracies as well. People are guided by emotions, and the role of images from TV and pro-Palestinian narratives on social media is difficult to underestimate.

Thus, through AI-powered analysis of one million posts, comments, and videos on the Arab-Israeli conflict posted on Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), and YouTube between October 7 and October 23, commissioned by The Economist, DMR came to the following conclusions. While Israel and Hamas enjoyed roughly equal support worldwide on October 7, less than two weeks later the situation changed. On a global average, posts expressing sympathy for Palestinian Arabs were nearly four times as numerous as those favoring Israel. In the most pro-Israel U.S. and UK, the ratio was 1:2 and 1:6 (!), respectively.

The explanation for this imbalance seems to be, among other things, age: the listed social networks are mostly used by younger people, unlike Facebook, which was not included in the sample. The pro-Palestinian sentiment is much more widespread among the young. The younger generation has turned out to be more receptive to the pro-Arab, anti-Zionist discourse set by left-wing progressives in lobbyist “civil society” structures, media, think tanks, and especially on university campuses in Western countries. In turn, a considerable number of these institutions, due to their public and academic status, end up being tools of large-scale ideological and informational manipulation, often generously financed by external stakeholders, including those from Arab and Muslim countries.

Young people appear to be more receptive to pro-Arab, anti-Zionist discourse

Thus, according to a credible analysis by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), the largest foreign donor to American colleges is currently Qatar. As ISGAP discovered, this super-rich oil and gas emirate with a state doctrine closely aligned with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and a history of sponsoring Hamas manages hundreds of billions of dollars in Western assets after years of massive investments in Western economies, infrastructure, and social sector. A substantial part of its generated revenues is invested in «soft power» programs, including the financing and promotion of projects and institutes of interest to the Qataris in prestigious Western colleges.

However, the outlook may be less bleak than it seems: Western public opinion polls carried out by credible sociological institutions paint a vastly different picture. Thus, a November survey by the U.S.-based company YouGov found that an equal share of British respondents support the Israelis and the Palestinians – 19% each, while the rest either sympathize with both sides or did not express an opinion.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are each supported by 19% of UK residents polled

A November 25-27 U.S. poll by the same agency commissioned by The Economist showed that the number of Americans sympathizing with Israel was nearly four times the number sympathizing with Palestinian Arabs (38% and 11%, respectively, with 28% sympathizing with both sides and 23% having no opinion). In other polls, Americans also tended to sympathize with Israel rather than Hamas or Palestinian Arabs in general. And it is Hamas that most people place the responsibility for starting the war on Hamas (in a Quinnipiac University poll, 69% of respondents blamed Hamas, and only 15% blamed Israel).

There is still no solidarity among Western nations regarding the war in the Middle East and Israel's actions in it: opinions vary significantly across racial, age, gender, and especially political groups in most countries. Thus, British Conservatives are more likely to support Israel, while Labor Party supporters tend to support Palestinian Arabs. In the U.S., registered Republican voters support Israel's actions much more strongly than Democrats, according to a Gallup poll: 71% and 36%, respectively. At the same time, party loyalties are intertwined with racial differences (61% of the White population supports Israel's actions, while 64% of citizens officially classified as POCs side with Palestinian Arabs). As for Western youth, they are far more likely to sympathize with Palestinian Arabs and Hamas than with Jews and Israel both on social media and in opinion polls. However, as past studies suggest, the opinions of this socio-demographic cohort often soften significantly as they grow older, so it is reasonable to expect a similar development in this case as well.

That said, American society is displaying trends that are less optimistic for Israel's plans for Hamas (and Palestinian Arabs in general). While most Americans surveyed still largely agree that Israel is “doing what any country would do in response to a terror attack,” two in three respondents said, as recently as a month ago, that the Israelis should call for a ceasefire and focus on returning the hostages. In the meantime, the U.S. would do better to assume the position of a neutral mediator, according to an Ipsos poll.

However, such trends are rather controversial. Compared to surveys from recent years, the polls show an increase in the Americans' positive perception of the “Palestinian people” and sympathy for its fate after October 7, while at the same time showing a significant decline in support for the idea of a Palestinian state. The same is true about the impression that global support for the claims and position of Palestinian leaders is gradually waning.

Overall, the fluctuating attitudes of the American public toward the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict are yet to sway the position of the upper echelon of the American political establishment. Israel enjoys bipartisan support in the Capitol, so reducing diplomatic, financial, and defense support for the Jewish state is out of the question. The White House has strongly hinted that the IDF should do more to address the “unacceptably high number of civilian deaths in Gaza” and hasten the ultimate destruction of Hamas' defense infrastructure to move on to a military routine that usually attracts far less global attention: local mop-ups of terrorist hideouts in the Strip. However, U.S. officials emphasize (probably faced with an obvious contradiction between the two objectives) that they do not intend to dictate to Israel how to wage war. So far, they have generally ignored the “mild dissatisfaction” of some of their NATO allies with this policy.

What the Global South wants

The position of the Global South – a rather motley and disorderly constellation of developing countries and economies in transition that form part of the third and former second world – is way harder to pinpoint. The bulk of its actors have adopted either a moderately pro-Palestinian or, more often, neutral stance on the current war. However, this does not prevent either category from voting almost mechanically in favor of any anti-Israel UN resolution, in keeping with the custom of the still-existing Non-Aligned Movement. A fundamentally different approach has been displayed by regimes that attempt, on behalf of the Global South, to somehow challenge the economic and political dominance of the Global West, usually defined as the U.S.-led bloc of “old” and “old-new” democracies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Serious conflicts of interest and political fractures within this activist Global South segment, including in the Middle East context, were evident more than a decade ago, but Israel's war with Hamas put local actors' appurtenance to either of the two regional blocs to the test. On one side is the anti-Western alliance of Iran and its satellites (Syria, Iraq), partners (such as Qatar), and terrorist proxies that have effectively taken control of their countries (like Hezbollah in Lebanon) or certain territories (like the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in the Gaza Strip). On the other side is the pro-Western alliance between Israel and the “moderate” Sunni countries of the Saudi bloc, whose members are now formalizing their long-standing security and economic partnership under Washington's auspices, against the backdrop of common challenges and threats from Iranian globalism and radical terrorist movements.

Essentially, it is the confrontation between these blocs, rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has exhausted itself in its conventional forms, that defines the current version of the Middle Eastern confrontation. Each of the pro-Iranian bloc actors is now openly or indirectly – on the battlefield or via propaganda and diplomacy – involved in the war with Israel and/or is contributing to Hamas' survival. In turn, the countries of the Saudi bloc are extremely invested in destroying Hamas and weakening other Iranian proxies, and therefore, while officially demanding that Israel accept a long truce in Gaza, informally support its actions in the Strip.

What they say, however, is a whole other story. Thus, the Saudis and their allies were among the signatories to the final declaration of the Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit in Riyadh in November, which blamed Israel for the “continuation and exacerbation of the conflict” in the Gaza Strip and demanded that an unlimited number of humanitarian aid convoys be allowed into the Strip. The leaders of the Arab world also demanded that the UN Security Council immediately condemn, in their terminology, Israel's “war crimes” in the Gaza Strip.

The Saudis demanded immediate condemnation of Israel's “war crimes” in the Gaza Strip

The reason for joining this chorus of Saudi Arabia and their allies, including the countries with which Israel officially has long-standing diplomatic relations (namely Jordan and Egypt), as well as the countries that have normalized relations with Jerusalem – participants in the Abraham Accords of 2020-2021 (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and others)– is quite clear: the voice of the “Arab street.” Thus, 40% of Saudi residents polled between November 14 and December 6 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) said they had a favorable view of Hamas (as compared to 10% last August). Only 16% of those polled thought Hamas should stop calling for the destruction of Israel, while 96% thought Arab countries should cut all ties with Israel.

Naturally, even pro-Western Arab leaders cannot ignore such sentiments, especially the new wave of Arab youth radicalization against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, in a region that has experienced the turbulence of the Arab Spring and the summer of ISIS. A few days after October 7, Saudi officials announced the suspension of talks with the U.S. on normalizing relations with Israel – which was fully expected. What drew more attention was the careful language that indicated Riyadh's desire to avoid a complete halt to the process. A late October White House statement confirmed this approach, suggesting that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had de facto expressed interest in pursuing negotiations to normalize relations with the Jewish state after the war. Little seems to have changed since then.

The WINEP analysis contained another interesting point: the Eastern mindset is likely to treat the turbulent mass protests against the legal reform in Israel that unfolded for the first nine months of the past year and the subsequent October 7 massacre in Israel's southern communities as evidence that “a weak and divided Israel could be defeated.” This view was shared by 87% of Saudis surveyed. Consequently, if Hamas suffers unequivocal defeat from the Israeli army backed by the U.S. and their allies, the mood of the Arab street could change quite significantly.

In the event of an Israeli victory, the mood of the “Arab street” could change

Therefore, having said what was expected of them, the Arab leaders of the anti-Iranian bloc went into a wait-and-see mode.

China and Russia

Last but not least, there are two more elephants in the room: Russia and China, which compete for the status of the Global South leader alongside India. While New Delhi, whose relations with Jerusalem have approached a state of strategic partnership in recent years, has taken a generally neutral position in Israel's conflict with Hamas, Moscow and Beijing have taken a side, and that side is not Israel.

Contrary to its recent practice of balancing and mediating between almost all stakeholders in the Middle East conflict, this time Moscow almost openly supports Hamas as a satellite of Iran, Russia's current closest partner in the region. The attitude of Russian society, which used to be quite favorably disposed toward Israel, has changed accordingly: according to polls, the share of Russians sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs (in this case, Hamas) is many times as high as that of Jewish state supporters.

The share of Russians sympathizing with Palestinian Arabs is many times as high as that of Jewish state supporters

There is even less controversy in China's position. Supporting the Palestinian Arabs in the context of a confrontation with the U.S. over global leadership has been a notable feature of Beijing's foreign policy for years. In the process, the former level of this confrontation – economic competition and struggle for influence in South and Southeast Asia – has been supplemented by China's ambitions in the regions traditionally influenced by the U.S., including the Middle East.

China comes to the Middle East as a powerful consumer of local energy resources and Iran's close partner and ally, bringing forward the idea of connecting the region to the ambitious infrastructural and geopolitical Belt and Road initiative(dubbed “the new Silk Road”), which implies, as evidenced by China’s practices elsewhere, the establishment of Beijing's long-term political influence on local regimes, including pro-Western ones. As a U.S. ally, Israel is of no help to China in any of the three endeavors.

On another note, Beijing's full-scale political and diplomatic presence in the Near and Middle East also implies its claim to the status of Palestinian Arabs’ patron – a symbolically meaningful role in the Arab-Muslim world. Finally, the Chinese are interested in diverting attention from the central government's persecution of the Muslim population in China's Xinjiang province. A common move in this sense, which Beijing has been using for years, is to convince international political and media circles that the Americans, while “hypocritically criticizing” Beijing for its violent actions against the Uyghur Muslims, are allegedly abetting its ally Israel in its “efforts to harm Muslims in Gaza.”

As a result, whereas India, which has both an alliance with Israel and close relations with Iran, hopes to provide a platform for finding common ground between these countries, and therefore seeks to put the Palestinian issue outside the brackets of mutual relations, China entertains no such hopes and intends to use the Palestinian issue most productively in pursuit of its Middle Eastern interests.

The simple conclusion from all of the above is this: if the ongoing war in the Middle East has accomplished anything, it was to remove the halftone: today you are inevitably faced with the need to pick a side.

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