Hamas Has Fractured the Arab World. America Must Help Prevent a Wider Conflict-in the West bank and beyond. Ghait al-Omari.October 2023

In the days since Hamas launched its ferocious October 7 terrorist attack on Israel and Israel began its massive response in the Gaza Strip, Arab governments have been caught in a difficult bind. Several Arab countries had entered, or were in the process of making, historic normalization agreements with Israel, and Israel’s immediate neighbors and long-standing peace partners, Jordan and Egypt, have enjoyed mutually beneficial diplomatic and security relations that contributed to regional security. At the same time support for the Palestinian cause runs high among Arab populations, and amid a war that seems likely to cause massive destruction in Gaza, Arab leaders must walk a careful line to avoid triggering a domestic and diplomatic backlash. Meanwhile, the floundering Palestinian Authority, long in power in the West Bank, faces escalating challenges of its own. And with a months-long security breakdown, the PA now faces the real possibility that the West Bank could be drawn into Hamas’s war with Israel, as the fighting gets bloodier in Gaza. 

As this explosive situation unfolds, sharp divisions have begun to emerge in the Arab world. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have entered the Abraham Accords with Israel, have issued statements clearly condemning Hamas. In turn, Qatar, Hamas’s main Arab backer, has lashed out at Israel and adopted language very similar to Hamas’s. Jordan and Egypt, meanwhile, with the most at stake on the ground, have remained cautious, navigating between their own national security concerns and restive domestic audiences. And then there is Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and perhaps the most consequential regional player today. Saudi Arabia was making progress on historic, U.S.-brokered talks with Israel at the time of the attack, yet it also seeks to maintain or perhaps even bolster its leadership role in the Arab world and support for the Palestinians.

Confronted with this highly complex regional landscape, the United States must try to balance potentially conflicting objectives, including backing Israel in its response to Hamas’s unprecedented attack, preventing a wider war, stabilizing the West Bank, and managing its relations with its Arab partners. The Biden administration is already deeply engaged in such efforts. U.S. President Joe Biden has called the Israeli prime minister, European allies, and Arab leaders. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited Israel and the region. Throughout these efforts, the United States has been clear in its steadfast support for Israel politically, militarily and diplomatically while repeatedly urging Israel to respect the laws of war. The war is in its early stages. The competing pressures around the region will get worse as the conflict in Gaza intensifies and Palestinian casualties rapidly mount. 

Stay informed.

In-depth analysis delivered weekly.


Like the rest of the world, Arab governments were caught off guard by the unprecedented scale and brutality of Hamas’s attack. They shared Israel’s assumption that Hamas was not currently interested in a major escalation but was instead busy with the demands of governing Gaza and deterred by Israel’s carrots and sticks. Before October 7, it seemed that Hamas’s strategy focused on destabilizing the West Bank while maintaining a measure of calm in Gaza.

Consider Israel’s close neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, both of whom reacted cautiously in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Egyptian officials refrained from condemning Hamas, called for de-escalation, and criticized Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Jordan reacted similarly, expressing support for the Palestinian cause. Indeed, both Jordan and Egypt have populations that are highly supportive of the Palestinians and have immediate national security concerns to think about. And both governments are challenged domestically by Islamist opposition groups that are sympathetic to Hamas.

In fact, Israel’s offensive against Gaza has already provoked unrest in both countries: an Egyptian policeman murdered two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian tour guide in Alexandria on October 8, a day after Hamas conducted its attack, and thousands of Jordanians demonstrated in Amman against Israel. As a result, both countries are on heightened alert. Egypt has explicitly stated that it will not allow large refugee flows from Gaza into its territory. And Jordan banned demonstrations near its border with Israel.

The situation among the Arab Gulf states is similarly complex. Qatar, which backs Hamas and funds Gaza, has held Israel “solely responsible” for the escalation, mirroring Hamas’s rhetoric. Moreover, Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel, a news station funded by Qatar that reaches tens of millions of people across the Arab world, has effectively served as a mouthpiece for Hamas.

Jordan banned demonstrations near its border with Israel.

By contrast, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates condemned Hamas, with the Emirati government calling the group’s actions a “serious and grave escalation” and declaring that it was “appalled” by the attacks on civilians. These statements come at a time when diplomatic relations between Israel and the two countries are delicate. Since joining the Abraham Accords both Bahrain and the UAE have taken significant steps to enhance economic and security ties with Israel. But diplomatic and political ties had come under pressure in recent months as a result of inflammatory comments and provocative actions by Israel’s far-right government concerning Palestinians in the West Bank and particularly Jerusalem. 

Policymakers are watching Saudi Arabia especially closely. At the time of the Hamas attack, the Biden administration appeared to be making headway toward brokering a historic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations. In addition to anchoring Saudi Arabia firmly in a U.S. security umbrella at a time when Washington has been perceived as pivoting away from the Middle East, these negotiations also aimed at securing significant Israeli commitments regarding the Palestinian issue. But Saudi Arabia plays a leading role in the Islamic world as guardian of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Palestinian cause remains popular among Saudis. Moreover, talk of normalization with Israel has exposed the kingdom to accusations that it was abandoning the Palestinian issue. With the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel, these talks have come to a halt. The Saudi government cannot appear to be cultivating ties with Israel at a time when the country is in an active conflict with the Palestinians. Indeed, it is likely that the Hamas attack was, at least in part, aimed at disrupting Israeli-Saudi rapprochement.

Following the attack, Riyadh issued a careful statement in support of Palestinians that neither approved of nor condemned Hamas’s actions. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has remained in close contact with the United States and key Arab countries. The Saudi crown prince even had a phone call with the president of Iran, the kingdom’s longtime rival and Hamas’s chief backer. Clearly, the Saudi government is trying toachieve two different objectives. On the one hand, Riyadh is seeking to maintain and bolster its leading role in regional diplomacy. Although traditionally cautious, the country has taken a far more proactive approach to foreign relations under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, its de facto leader. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia remains committed to its longtime goal of establishing a Palestinian state, even though it is aware that this is not possible in the short term. Saudi Arabia likely feels the need to burnish its pro-Palestinian credentials.

In the short term, for the duration of the fighting in Gaza and its immediate aftermath, a deal with Israel is out of the question. In the long term, however, it is unclear how a conflict between Hamas and Israel will change the basic interests that drove Saudi Arabia to seek relations with Israel. Both countries share larger security concerns in the region, including containing Iran and limiting Islamic extremism. And both countries seek to benefit from stronger economic ties, especially as Saudi Arabia proceeds with its Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy.


Arab governments’ calculations about the Hamas-Israel war are made even more complicated by the situation in the West Bank. In launching its new war, Hamas has been trying to trigger a security breakdown in the West Bank as well, where the population has been restive.

For years now, a political and security vacuum has been emerging in the West Bank—a trend that has accelerated since Israel formed the most hardline government in its history last year. Along with the newly hostile Israeli leadership, Palestinians have faced growing settler violence, and relentless expansion of settlements. But this deterioration is not only a result of Israeli policies. The Palestinian leadership is aging, unpopular, and sclerotic. Widespread corruption, poor governance, and increasingly authoritarian tendencies have led a majority of Palestinians to lose faith in their leaders and governing structures. Today, 80 percent of Palestinians consider the PA to be corrupt, and most want its 89-year-old president, Mahmoud Abbas, to step down. As a result, the PA finds itself unable to exert control on the ground.

As it becomes even more lethal, the war between Israel and Hamas could push the West Bank over the edge. If an incident or terror attack emanating from the West Bank causes Israel to respond with large-scale force—or if settlers themselves attack Palestinians, as happened in the village of Hawara in February 2023—it could provoke fighting across the West Bank. The area is already showing warning signs of impending violence. Palestinians have been demonstrating against Israeli attacks in Gaza daily, though for now the protests remain small.

A political and security vacuum has been emerging in the West Bank.

Given such chaos, and its own weakness, the PA has few good options. It thinks it has little room to maneuver and must try to balance its desire for stability with its need to cater to highly inflamed public opinion—which will only become more difficult as the war in Gaza gets bloodier. So far, the PA has reacted by publicly blaming Israel for the escalation with Hamas. After coming under international pressure, the PA has condemned violence against civilians without explicitly mentioning Hamas. But it has also tried to maintain calm in the West Bank by using its security forces to keep demonstrators away from checkpoints and other areas where confrontations with Israeli forces are most likely to occur. 

Yet riding the wave of anger against Israel comes with risks. In echoing Hamas’s messaging, the leadership in the West Bank will only inflame emotions, both among ordinary Palestinians but also within an already demoralized security establishment, whose members may refuse to show up for duty. Moreover, Abbas, who was already viewed negatively by many world leaders because of his poor governance of the West Bank and inflexible diplomatic approach, has further squandered what little international goodwill he had left by making antisemitic statements in September 2023. It is no coincidence that Biden has not yet called him, delegating that task to Blinken. 

An escalation in the West Bank would have enormous repercussions across the region. Not only would the human toll be high, but given the PA’s fragility, fighting could cause the organization’s collapse. Many groups would welcome such a fall, including Hamas and terror organizations in the West Bank, such as the Lions’ Den. If the PA collapsed, the political vacuum in the West Bank would likely lead Israel to once again directly rule the territory, spill over to Jordan, and upend the broader regional and international diplomatic approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has long treated the PA as the Palestinians’ representative in the efforts to create an eventual two-state solution. Given all that is at stake, preventing the war from spreading to the West Bank should be among the highest priorities in Washington and among its close Arab allies.


For the United States, handling these highly complex regional dynamics will not be easy. Washington will need to balance the political needs of its various Arab allies while maintaining its support for Israel and taking what steps it can to contain the humanitarian costs of the war in Gaza. Arab governments cannot ignore their own domestic political pressures, but they share Washington’s interest in keeping the war from spreading. The Biden administration will need different things from different Arab countries. Egypt will be crucial in brokering an eventual end to the Gaza war. Jordan enjoys unparalleled leverage vis-à-vis the PA. These countries may not share Washington’s public posture, but they have both proven to be reliable partners in the past.

Relations with Riyadh will be more complicated. Biden and MBS have suffered from strained ties. Yet the U.S. efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia have created openings for the United States to explore ways in which Saudi Arabia can advance some of Washington’s positions. For example, Riyadh might use its religious standing to counter Hamas’s claims that its actions are religiously sanctioned.

As for other Gulf countries, the United States should publicly acknowledge the principled positions taken by the UAE and Bahrain. Conversely, Washington should explicitly call out Qatar for its support of Hamas. Once the fighting ends in Gaza, the United States should explore the role of Arab states in post-conflict reconstruction and, if Hamas is dislodged, in the management of Gaza. In addition, Washington should consider steps to stabilize the West Bank through urgent economic and security measures.  

Ultimately, however, events on the ground in Gaza in the coming days and weeks will shape what is diplomatically possible. The United States needs to remain focused on its goal, as articulated by U.S. leaders, of ensuring that Hamas will never again be able to mount the kind of terror attack it did on October 7.

Dejar una respuesta