When the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco announced that they were establishing relations with Israel in 2020, Emirati officials said the deals were symbols of peace and tolerance, while then President Donald J. Trump declared “the dawn of a new Middle East.”
Those words rang hollow to many in the region, though. Even in the countries that signed the deals, branded the Abraham Accords, support for the Palestinians — and enmity toward Israel over its decades-long occupation of their land — remained strong, particularly as Israel’s government expanded settlements in the Palestinian West Bank after the agreements.
On Saturday, when Palestinian gunmen from the blockaded territory of Gaza surged into Israel, carrying out the boldest attack in the country in decades, it set off an outpouring of support for the Palestinians across the region. In some quarters, there were celebrations — even as hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were killed and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel threatened a “long and difficult war” ahead.
“This is the first time that we rejoice in this way for our Palestinian brothers,” said Abdul Majeed Abdullah Hassan, 70, who joined a rally with hundreds of people in the island kingdom of Bahrain. In the context of the Israeli occupation and blockade, the Hamas operation “warmed our hearts,” he said, calling his government’s deal to recognize Israel “shameful.”
Demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians took place across the region, including in Bahrain, Morocco, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia and Kuwait. In Lebanon, Hashem Safieddine, head of the executive council for the Iran-backed militia Hezbollah, delivered a fiery speech lauding “the era of armed resistance.” And in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria, a policeman opened fire on Israeli tourists, killing two Israelis and an Egyptian.
The ripples spreading from Gaza underscored what many officials, scholars and citizens in the region have been saying for years: The Palestinian cause is still a deeply felt rallying cry that shapes the contours of the Middle East, and Israel’s position in the region will remain unstable as long as its conflict with the Palestinians continues.
Diplomatic “normalization” agreements between Israel and Arab governments — even with the powerhouse of Saudi Arabia, where American officials have been pushing recently for normalization — will do little to change that, many regional analysts say.
“The current war is a stark reminder that lasting peace and prosperity in the region is only possible after resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Bader Al-Saif, a professor at Kuwait University. “No amount of heavy lifting or acrobatics in dealing with Israel on other files can sidestep or erase this simple fact.”
Many Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, have long insisted that the price of recognizing Israel must be the creation of a Palestinian state. But over the past decade, that calculus has shifted, as authoritarian leaders weigh negative public opinion toward a relationship with Israel against the economic and security benefits it could offer — and what they might be able to get from the United States in return.
The Biden administration has been pressing for a deal that would establish ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia in exchange for significant concessions to the kingdom. Saudi officials have demanded American security assurances and support for a civilian nuclear program.
Last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia made his first public reference to the negotiations, saying in a Fox News interview that the talks felt “real” for the first time. And in early October, the kingdom’s newspapers — which operate under limited press freedom — began publishing a spate of columns that were subtly or openly supportive of normalization.
The eruption of violence on Saturday presented a significant challenge to those efforts.
It also made comments by King Abdullah II of Jordan at a conference in New York last month appear prescient: “This belief by some in the region that you can parachute over Palestine — deal with the Arabs and work your way back — that does not work,” he said.
Indeed, some Arab officials and scholars complain that their warnings about normalization deals that do not sincerely address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have fallen on deaf ears.
Watching the events in Gaza feels like hearing Arabs say “we told you so” to the American president, Khalid al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi academic, wrote on the social media platform X. “Ignoring what’s right in finding a just solution to the Palestinian cause creates a trap for the region and threatens peace,” he said.
American officials say that normalization is a key step toward a more integrated Middle East, with positive implications for regional security and American defense interests.
“There are really two paths before the region,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “There’s the path of greater integration, greater stability, including, critically, making sure that Israelis and Palestinians resolve their differences, or there’s the path of terror that Hamas is engaged on, that has not improved the lives of a single person.”
He added: “We’ve said from day one that even as we’re working toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that can’t be a substitute for resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians.”
But many in the region say that normalization feels like a betrayal: a triumph of government and business elites over the will of their people.
The Palestinian cause “is something we grew up on as children, and it became a compass to show what is right and just,” said Reem Maraj, 34, who participated in a symposium on Saturday in Bahrain that discussed the outcome of the Abraham Accords, three years later.
“If I had the choice, I would have erased this agreement from the history of my country,” she said.
Polls show that even in Arab countries that have relations with Israel, a majority of citizens view the Abraham Accords negatively.
“We stand fully with the rights of the Palestinian people to free their land,” said Hassan Bennajeh, one of the organizers of protests in Morocco. “We are asking to end the normalization because it doesn’t reflect the opinion of Moroccans.”
The Qatar Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that it holds Israel “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its continuous violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.”
The government of Iran, which for years has been engaged in a shadow war with Israel and has supported Hamas, cheered the group’s attack on Israel on Saturday.
And Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said on local television last night that his country “has been warning, for months, of the danger of provocative practices” by Israel.
“The ongoing occupation and dehumanization of Palestinians has been on full display for decades and it has shaped the way Arabs view the conflict,” said Mr. Al-Saif, the Kuwaiti professor. “Palestine is the priority of the Arab street.”
Even so, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist, predicted that a deal between Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel was likely to move ahead.
“I would bet my money on it,” he said. “If the right price comes across from the Americans, I think the Saudis have their national interest as No. 1 priority.”
The violence in Israel “might derail things for a while, but it’s not going to reverse the appetite for normalization with Israel and de-escalating — a new Middle East,” he said.
On Sunday morning, another signal arrived in a major Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat. In a column, Tariq Alhomayed, the newspaper’s former editor, criticized Hamas and Palestinian factions for waging what he called a “useless war.”
He accused them of trying to sabotage the prospects for Saudi-Israeli normalization — and of serving their Iranian backers at the expense of the Palestinian people.
“Iran does not want to see real peace, or specifically Saudi-Israeli peace,” he wrote. “Because if it happens, it will be the peace that will change the face of the region.”
Aida Alami contributed reporting from Asilah, Morocco; Nazeeha Saeed from Berlin, Germany; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; and Ahmed Al Omran from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.