Many in Middle East Blame United States for Devastation in Gaza

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
President Joe Biden responds Monday when asked about a potential deal in the Israel-Gaza conflict. In the Middle East, many people blame the United States for the devastation in Gaza since Oct. 7.

CAIRO – The entire front page of a Lebanese newspaper this month displayed President Biden’s face superimposed over pictures of dead Palestinian children, under a headline declaring “Western genocide.”

In Egypt and some Persian Gulf states, once-bustling Starbucks and McDonald’s outlets sit empty thanks to a boycott of U.S. brands. And in Beirut, Tunis and other Arab capitals, protesters have marched on U.S. diplomatic missions, sometimes burning American flags, to vent their fury at the staggering death toll in Gaza.

The prevailing view throughout the Middle East is that while Israel is doing the fighting, this is an American war. Without the diplomatic cover and high-tech munitions provided by the United States, the reasoning goes, Israel wouldn’t be able to carry out the massive operation it launched in Gaza to “eradicate Hamas” that a U.N. official this week said has caused “complete and utter carnage.” Israel’s aerial and ground attack on Gaza came after Hamas massacred more than 1,200 people and abducted scores of others on Oct. 7.

International human rights groups, alarmed by the images of maimed or lifeless Palestinian children pulled from the rubble, have warned that the Israeli response is disproportionate and probably includes war crimes, a charge Israeli authorities reject. In Arab nations, where solidarity with the Palestinian cause has endured for decades, millions are watching as the only force they see as powerful enough to stop the bloodletting in Gaza instead defends it. The U.S.-backed pause in fighting set to begin Friday is generally welcomed, but it falls short of Arab calls for the United States to back a longer truce.

“In a very important moment of history, when principles were put to the test, they failed the world,” said Noha Bakr, an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

Political analysts in the Middle East called Washington’s support for Israel’s war a reckless position that doesn’t account for the long-term diplomatic, security and economic effects of alienating a region where rivals, namely China, are carving deeper inroads. More importantly, they said, the war has toppled the United States from its moral high ground, with Biden’s lectures to Russia about safeguarding civilian life in Ukraine now juxtaposed with his more muted statements as Israel bombs schools and hospitals in Gaza.

On social media, at cafes and in nearly every regional publication, Arabs express a blend of despair and rage toward the American reaction to Palestinian suffering. That feeling was reinforced Tuesday when the White House issued a statement on the deal to free hostages in exchange for a pause in fighting and the release of some Palestinian prisoners.

“I’m gratified that these brave souls, who have endured an unspeakable ordeal, will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented,” Biden said of the hostages in a statement. He made no mention of the Palestinian death toll of more than 13,300, among them more than 5,000 children, according to the latest figures from health officials in Gaza.

On X, formerly Twitter, dozens of comments under Biden’s statement highlighted the omission and responded with variations of the message that the president’s legacy in the Middle East would be “soaked in blood.”

“Where are the American values that the Biden administration has been talking about since it came to power?” asked Maha Allam, an American studies researcher at the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Cairo.

“America had multiple opportunities to reorient its compass,” she said. “But it didn’t.”

A growing boycott movement

Since the start of the war, American brands have emerged as the main recipients of street-level anger over the U.S. role in the conflict. A platform called Bdnassh, meaning “We don’t want,” allows users to see if a particular brand is on a boycott list alongside Pizza Hut, Pepsi and many other mainstays.

Pro-boycott videos rack up thousands, sometimes millions, of views on YouTube and TikTok with messaging that buying from big American brands amounts to complicity in the killing of Palestinians. In one video, ketchup turns to blood as a man squeezes it on his McDonald’s fries. In another, a green-and-white Starbucks cup turns crimson while the mermaid logo morphs into a skeleton.

“We picked Starbucks to send a message,” said Abdrahman Taeyara, a college student who was among demonstrators outside a Beirut branch of the coffee chain this month. The activists stood silently, passing out leaflets and carrying signs urging passersby to support the boycott.

Typically, brands are added to the list for issuing pro-Israel statements or because of the idea that earnings are taxed and therefore fund U.S. weapons sent to bolster Israel’s arsenal. Nuance and evidence matter little in the emotion of the moment, when eschewing a Coke is a small antidote to the helplessness of watching Gaza’s misery.

Some boycotters go so far as to call for the public shaming of those who don’t join them.

“If you pass by a Starbucks, check to see if there are any traitors inside,” one Qatari boycotter said on TikTok, urging people to “give them a stare so they can feel guilt.” The video has nearly 2 million views.

In Egypt, some McDonald’s now display the Palestinian and Egyptian flags, along with pledges to donate to Gaza. Despite the damage-control efforts, many of the restaurants remain empty.

Earlier this month, the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce released a statement calling on “the loyal people of Egypt not to follow boycott calls” because the actions harm the national economy and affect “the salaries of tens of thousands of Egyptians who work in those companies.”

That argument doesn’t sway Eman Khaled, an 18-year-old Egyptian student who supports the boycott.

“Their blood is like our blood. They are people just like us,” she said of Palestinians. “Why should I go pay so that they buy bullets to kill them?”

The boycott movement is also a way for young Arabs to telegraph their anger over Gaza without running afoul of crackdowns on public demonstrations imposed by the region’s monarchs and authoritarians, who are terrified that any unrest could reignite the pro-democracy rebellions of more than a decade ago.

The Arab world now has “the largest youth cohort it has ever seen,” according to the United Nations, which counts 60 percent of the region’s population younger than 30. Through social media, Arab youths are connected to like-minded activists around the world. Even if they can’t be as vocal in their criticism for security reasons, they signal their views by wearing wristbands with the Palestinian flag or by sharing memes and emojis of watermelons, a popular symbol of the Palestinian cause.

In Baghdad, the American University of Iraq sparked an uproar with an Oct. 10 email introducing a campuswide ban on the traditional patterned scarves of the region, including the black-and-white keffiyeh associated with Palestinians. The email, which was viewed by The Washington Post, couched the ban as part of ongoing revisions to the dress code, but the wording made it clear kaffiyehs were the issue.

Hours later, after a backlash on social media, administrators apologized for the “misunderstanding.” The next day students organized a demonstration, wearing kaffiyehs on campus as they denounced the killing of civilians.

Firas Ali, a 22-year old computer science student, said he grew up admiring the United States despite the resentment in Baghdad over the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. He learned English partly through Hollywood movies, mimicking the American accent and believing in American values: “You know, like, human rights, freedom of speech.”

Enrolling at the American University, Ali said, was part of his dream to eventually live in the United States. That plan evaporated, he said, as he watched Israel killing families and bombing hospitals with “the direct support of the nation I have always admired.”

“To me, they were heroes and whoever is against them is a terrorist,” he said. “This all has changed after October 7th.”

No red lines

The United States became a party to the conflict from the outset, by dispatching warships to support Israel before sending politicians or diplomats, said Mohammed Obeid, a Beirut-based political analyst close to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group whose low-intensity exchanges with Israel already are widening the war.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that an aircraft carrier strike group had been ordered to the eastern Mediterranean a day after the Oct. 7 attack. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel four days later.

“Before sending diplomats to find a political solution, they sent their warships and weapons and threatened a response,” Obeid said. “So they actually got involved in this war for the sake of Israel, not for the sake of the United States.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s remark that “we’re not drawing red lines for Israel” is replayed ad nauseam on Arabic-language news outlets. The blank-check support for Israel isn’t new, analysts said, but some were nevertheless surprised by what they view as anti-Palestinian rhetoric coming from the president himself, coupled with the refusal to entertain any criticism that Israel’s response amounts to collective punishment. Women and children make up nearly 70 percent of the dead, according to U.N. estimates.

Biden was pilloried in the Middle East for expressing doubts about the number of Palestinian casualties because the Gaza Health Ministry, like other official functions, is run by Hamas. Independent researchers and humanitarian groups have vouched for the accuracy of the counts. Biden also repeatedly spread an Israeli government talking point about Hamas beheading babies – a specific claim that lacks clear evidence, unlike the many other documented brutalities committed by the militants inside Israel on Oct. 7.

After what many in the region saw as the naked xenophobia that marked the Donald Trump era, analysts said, Biden’s election had been viewed as a reset. Now, as Allam put it, “he’s no different from Trump.”

Other concerns are that Biden’s stance emboldens militant groups, which already have attacked U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria, and risks the stability of some of the U.S. government’s most reliable Arab allies. Nations such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are all squeezed between guarding their shared interests with the United States and the popular anger swelling with each new day of bloodied children and flattened schools.

The slow and sensitive path to normalization between Israel and Persian Gulf states including Saudi Arabia – a showpiece of U.S. policy in the region – is now on ice. Instead, the region saw a delegation of Arab foreign ministers head to China this week for talks on how to resolve the Gaza crisis.

“America’s blind support for what’s happening now is affecting the soft-power capacity of the United States in the region,” said Bakr, of the American University in Cairo. “No one can watch what they are watching and accept the narrative that we have to continue bombarding civilians.”

El Chamaa reported from Beirut. Heba Mahfouz in Cairo, Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.