Not only Arabs in the street but, strikingly, also their rulers nearly uniformly condemned Israel for the Gaza hospital attack and other violence affecting Palestinians.
They donned the black-and-white checkered Palestinian scarf known as the keffiyeh in Tunis, unfurled giant Palestinian flags in downtown Cairo and chanted against Israeli occupation in the normally sleepy Oman capital of Muscat. In Morocco and Bahrain, they demanded a reversal of their government’s normalization with Israel, the country they consider responsible for oppressing their Palestinian brethren.
In Lebanon, they pushed toward the United States Embassy, denouncing the superpower for enabling Israel’s brutality toward civilians in the Gaza Strip. In Istanbul, 80,000 people massed outside the Israeli consulate, including some who attempted to storm the building with stones, sticks, torches and fireworks.
Thousands of protesters marched in grief, fury and solidarity across the Middle East on Tuesday night and Wednesday, after hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed in an explosion at a hospital in Gaza. Although Israel and the United States said the evidence pointed to a faulty rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group, there was little doubt for those protesters that Israel was to blame — and not just for the hospital attack, but for the broader conflict as well.
“What is happening is an extermination,” said Khaled Mhamdi, 27, a content creator who was among the thousands who gathered outside the French Embassy in Tunis on Wednesday. “The whole world should do something to stop it.”
The carnage at Al Ahli Hospital, the site of the blast in Gaza on Tuesday, unified not only Arabs in the street but also the rulers they tend to regard with weary distrust. Some Arabs have berated their governments for failing to stand up to Israel in the past, but now those governments have nearly uniformly condemned Israel for the attack. The leaders of Jordan and Egypt canceled a meeting with President Biden after the hospital explosion, apparently unwilling to stomach being seen with the leader of Israel’s staunchest supporter as images of bloodied children at the hospital were ricocheting around Arab social media.
The widespread criticism made for a striking convergence: For once, many Arab publics long frustrated with their leaders over a wide range of issues appeared to be more or less on the same page as them.
Whatever final conclusions the investigators still parsing the evidence might eventually reach about the blast’s origins did not seem likely to change, for many Arabs, the stark truth: It was Israel that was now bombing Gaza, killing far more civilians than Palestinian militants had killed in Israel 11 days ago, in a repeat of the lopsided math of previous Israeli retribution campaigns.
It was Israel that had herded two million Palestinian civilians into the open-air jail that rights groups say Gaza has become and systematically diminished any Palestinian chance at statehood, laying what experts have said were the foundations for conflict. And it was Israel that, many Arabs charged, had a history of obfuscating its role in previous abuses.
Against that backdrop, they said, there was only one side to hold accountable for Tuesday night’s horror.
It was galling to discover instead that Israel’s chief backer, the United States, was pinning blame on the Palestinians, and that the Western news media did not condemn Israel over the deaths — further reason, protesters said, to correct the record by raising their voices.
“As a journalist, I feel a responsibility to counter this propaganda by the media that’s covering for this crime,” said Saida El Kamel, a Moroccan journalist who had joined a gathering in front of the Parliament in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, on Tuesday night, to protest against both Israel and the United States.
Such demonstrations erupting outside U.S. diplomatic outposts across the region prompted the American Embassy in Lebanon to warn citizens not to visit the country, while the consulate in Adana, Turkey, closed down.
Hassan Bennajeh, who has helped organize pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Morocco over the past week, said people had rallied in 23 Moroccan cities on Tuesday night after the hospital blast, a striking figure given the rarity of demonstrations in Morocco and the authorities’ usual swiftness in putting them down.
But Morocco’s Foreign Ministry quickly joined its citizens in blaming Israel for the hospital explosion, even though Morocco normalized relations with the Jewish state in 2020.
In Egypt, whose autocratic government usually stamps out almost any flicker of protest, the authorities sat back as demonstrations erupted in multiple cities on Wednesday, including on university campuses in Cairo, Alexandria, Minya, Mansoura and Beni Suef.
“Arabs, where are you?” shouted students at Mansoura University in the Nile Delta, according to videos posted on social media. “Palestinian blood has been shed.”
Journalists and activists also massed outside the journalists’ syndicate building in downtown Cairo, while a group of liberal opposition political figures organized a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday night. (Embassy security prevented them from getting too close, forcing them to demonstrate instead outside the British Embassy next door.)
The Egyptian public has maintained a stony hostility toward Israel long after the two countries made peace in 1979. That has held firm even as the government has established a close working relationship with the Israeli military in Sinai and quietly deepened trade and tourism ties in recent years.
But President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been vocally supportive of the Palestinian cause in recent days, and Egypt’s government press center even advertised a call for a mass protest to show solidarity for the Palestinians after midday prayers on Friday.
Egypt is also wary of demands to admit a million or more Palestinian refugees from Gaza into its territory. In remarks on Wednesday, Mr. el-Sisi accused Israel of seeking to push Palestinians out of Gaza into Egypt. That would “render the idea of a Palestinian state unworkable,” he said, adding: “We reject the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.”
In some countries, people were not satisfied with mere rhetoric. In Morocco and Bahrain, large crowds demanded their countries break off the diplomatic ties with Israel they had established in recent years.
In Bahrain, which established relations with Israel in 2020 as part of the Trump administration initiative called the Abraham Accords, protesters chanted “death to Israel” and held up images of Mr. Biden’s face labeled with the words “war criminal,” according to videos shared by Bahraini activists. Bahraini security forces shot tear gas in an attempt to disperse the angry crowds as they struggled to reach the heavily secured U.S. Embassy.
In Cairo, security forces broke up a demonstration in the Sixth of October neighborhood on Tuesday night, social media posts showed — a possible indication that the government remained nervous about the potential for pro-Palestinian gatherings to spark anti-Sisi unrest at a time when Egyptians deeply resent the government over a crushing economic crisis. Mr. el-Sisi is standing for re-election in December.
But to judge from passionate social media posts by young Egyptians, the scale of protest and voices in the Egyptian news media, the humanitarian emergency in Gaza is sweeping domestic concerns away, at least for the moment.
“One should not underestimate the impact of the horrific scenes coming out of Gaza on people’s psyche in Egypt,” said Amr Hamzawy, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program. “Egyptians are preoccupied with what’s happening in Gaza. And the government right now is in sync with the public.”
Reporting was contributed by Aida Alami and Anushka Patil from New York; Imen Blioua from Tunis, Tunisia; Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Euan Ward from Beirut, Lebanon; and Fahad Al Mukrashi from Muscat, Oman.