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'Gaza' or 'Hamas'

The other day I pointed out the Arab political divisions over the response to Gaza. It might be interesting to show how this plays out in one of the key interpretive struggles in the Arab public sphere (and not only Arab, of course): whether to define the current Israeli attack as against "Gaza" or "Hamas." The stakes are clear. If the attack is defined as against "Gaza", then what follows is solidarity with the Palestinians and demands to stop the killing. If the attack is defined as against "Hamas", then what follows is the division of Arab opinion along sharply polarized lines defined by their views towards the Islamist movement. Who's winning? Thus far, "Gaza" in a landslide... but just as in the 2006 Hezbollah war, the 2008 Iraqi Basra campaign, and all other such battles the interpretive struggle will continue long beyond the hostilities.

The "Hamas" frame is being pushed by Israel, the United States, the Egyptian government, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, parts of the Saudi media and generally the familiar quarters of the "official Arab order". While they can't ignore the destruction in Gaza, their focus is primarily on Hamas's "irresponsibility" for breaking the cease-fire, and on its alleged alliances with a variety of enemies of this official order: Iran, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, here's the lead story on the crisis on the Saudi al-Arabiya right now, showcasing Hamas missiles, not suffering Gazans:

Arabiya hamas
 

The competing frame focuses on the mass human suffering at the hands of Israeli military assault and the inaction on the part of Arab governments. Thus far, the "Hamas" frame has been absolutely swamped by the "Gaza" frame. The visuals in the Arab media show endless pain, sufffering, and trauma for Gazans of all stripes. Al-Jazeera has taken the lead in pushing the images and the frame, but it is far more pervasive than that -- and extends far, far beyond the "pro-Iran" or "Islamist" forces to which the first camp prefers to assign it. Almost every newspaper features front page images of devastation in Gaza, imagery which overwhelms the carefully calculated political arguments of the official Arab camp. The language of choice throughout the media is "massacre", "slaughter", "assault". Here are just a few examples from today's editions of Jordan's semi-official al-Rai, Lebanon's al-Safir, and the Saudi pan-Arab al-Hayat:

Alrai

It remains to be seen how much this matters, of course, and skepticism runs deep. Anyone who lived through the fierce protests during the second Intifada in 2000, the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank in 2002, or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 will remember well the rising force of popular protest at those moments, the expectations of dramatic change, the perception of regimes on the brink, the empowered public opinion, the satellite television arguments, the declarations of the final collapse of the Arab official order. And here we still are.

I do think that public opinion matters, at least indirectly in terms of shaping the terms of Arab politics, even if governments don't fall, treaties aren't broken or war declared. A whole industry of 'public diplomacy' and 'wars of ideas' is based on the concern that anti-American attitudes matter, for instance. Here, the anti-Hamas camp has already been forced to bow to this frame rhetorically, with the Mubarak demanding Israel immediately end its "monstrous" assault, and the GCC calling for an immediate end to the violence. The limits of their concessions can be seen in the fact that they continue to blame Hamas for the crisis, though, and refuse to do anything substantive in response (calling for an Arab summitt to eventually be held, or photo opportunities of blood donations don't really count). Their media are trying to portray those governments as acting effectively, but that doesn't seem to be getting much traction with a deeply skeptical and outraged public. If the crisis grinds on, we'll see whether these regimes are forced to start making more concessions to public views --- but most of the real impact will only be felt long-term.

Originally posted on Abu Aardvark.

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