The Gaza War in Middle East Media: How Palestine is Spun Around the Region

The Gaza War in Middle East Media: How Palestine is Spun Around the Region
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Newspaper headlines and TV talk shows around the Middle East have been filled with news from Gaza since Hamas launched its attack into Israel on 7 October and the Israeli military began its devastating retaliation. How the war is being framed and the narratives that have been adopted, however, appear to reflect the domestic political interests and social sensitivities in each country as much as they do the horrific reality of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank.

In Saudi Arabia, the media has shown staunch solidarity with Palestinians while still framing normalization with Israel as an inevitable necessity for regional peace. In Egypt, media supporting both President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his opponents have alternatively sought to use the war as a platform to showcase El Sisi’s strength or reveal his ineptitude. In Lebanon, where Hezbollah and Israeli forces have been skirmishing across the border for more than two months, anxieties over an escalation into full-blown war have gradually been supplanted by the country’s own economic and political crises. In Yemen, the Houthis have sought to support Gaza from afar, firing missiles and drones at Israel and threatening the Red Sea artery of global trade, and in so doing rallying their fragmented country in solidarity with Palestine. In Tehran, which sponsors both Hezbollah and the Houthis, conservative and reformist media battle over whether Iran itself should enter the war, while anti-regime social media influencers assert that Hamas’ destruction at Israel’s hands could only benefit their homeland.

In the following publication, ARI tours the region through expert voices from each country, presented in both commentaries and Q&As, to examine the many media narratives being spun about the Gaza war.

Saudi Arabia: Coupling Palestinian Solidarity with Israeli Normalization

An interview with Saudi researcher Aziz Alghashian

How are the discussions in Saudi media positioning the country relative to the Gaza war?

Aziz Alghashian (AA): I don’t think there is much difference between the [kingdom’s] policy position and the [media] narrative... One could say the Saudi media narrative is very much in solidarity with the Palestinians and demonizing Israelis. But this brings me to Al Arabiya. Whereas Al Jazeera, from the outset, was clear-cut in what the narrative was, Al Arabiya was covering the horror stories of the victims of the Hamas attacks. Then as the Israeli retaliation happened and increased, that obviously took most of the focus.

Al Arabiya — which I follow the most — has also been very consistent at bringing guests on and challenging them. Al Arabiya brought on a Hamas official, Khaled Mishal, and challenged him, “Do you think it is fair to say that you guys take responsibility for this too? You instigated a massive response.” But they also brought Israeli officials and challenged their narrative. I find it very interesting that they’re trying to be balanced and have credibility.

It sounds like Saudi media was positioning the kingdom as an observer of the conflict.

AA: When I say they are in solidarity with the Palestinian issue, what does that mean? This is where you can sense there is a lot of pride and amplification of three things. Firstly, Saudi statements demonizing Israel. Second, Saudi financial support for humanitarian aid to Gaza. And the third, the diplomatic effort that Faisal bin Farhan, the foreign minister, is leading with the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

In some ways, one can say that we are being lionized [in the media], and perhaps this is responding to [local] criticism that Saudis are not doing enough. Therefore, they’re showing that not only is there significant diplomatic effort, and financial effort for aid, but also they’re showing results. So, for example, they’re showing that Canada changed and moderated its language; Spain is contemplating recognizing a Palestinian state. The media are attributing that to the Saudi effort.

Saudi Arabia paused normalization talks with Israel, but do you get any sense that the media environment is keeping the door open for the resumption of normalization at some point down the road?

AA: I think they are. And not only that, I think that is the entire Saudi position. The way they treat normalization is that not only is the door open, but the ball is in [Israel’s] court. They say, “Listen, it’s up to you. We are still willing to have normalization, because this is a strategic option for us — because of peace, basically — and therefore, if the conditions are met, we would commence with normalization.” But they don’t say it that way. They just say, “Normalization is still on the table. Period.” I don’t see an overt [official] demonization of Israel, but the demonization is there.

At the same time, when it comes to the media, and having a potential about-turn about Israel, I don’t think there is an “about-turn”. I think there is a playing with the frames. I don’t think that, for example, [the narrative would be] “You know what, Israel is actually fantastic” — I don’t see that. I think what they will be doing is to frame it as part of the solution. They will say, “You know what, Israel is still pretty negative, but dealing with Israel is a necessity for the regional peace.” Because credibility is an issue. I just don’t see a warm welcoming of Israel any time soon.

Regarding Saudi social media influencers, before 7 October, they were putting forward a public narrative in favor of normalization, and given the media landscape and its restrictions, they likely would have been given the OK by the palace, if not directly given the content. Have these influencers changed their discourse? And to what extent is this a matter of signaling on the part of MBS?

AA: Yes, they have changed the discourse. And to be honest, Saudi social media is very, shall we say, a landmine. There are a few very loud people. But, considering that, before there was this idea that — I wouldn’t even say “in favor of normalization” of Israel, I would say “a legitimization of relations with Israel.” It goes back to what this process encompasses. Normalization, with a Palestinian element, was being supported. Outside of a Palestinian element, people were a bit quiet.

I’ll give you an example. When MBS gave that interview with FOX News, they quoted him as saying “Every day we’re getting closer to normalization”. That was a snippet of the answer. It came out on social media, and everyone had strong political excitement everywhere.

And then in Saudi, once the entire quote came out that included “but we have to find a solution to the Palestinian issue. We have to make the life of the Palestinians easier” – it didn’t hint to a state, but it hinted to a Palestinian element – that’s when Saudi social media people started to engage with it even more. That’s when even the social media accounts of spokesmen and officials began to say, “Oh, now this is the context that we are going to support our normalization in.”

Anything else you would like to add?

AA: I think it’s interesting that Israeli officials, former officials, and spokespersons, are appearing in Saudi media. I think that is a tacit sign of gradually introducing Israel to the psyche of the Al Arabiya audience. And I think that is continuing. But again, one has to look at this in context and history.

Many people don’t even know what Israel is sometimes because we never spoke about it. That’s how much we never recognized it. We barely talk about it in education. It doesn’t show up on our maps.

But the geopolitics of the region are changing. The realities are also changing. So, this is one way of trying to show it. But it doesn’t mean that this is somehow a sign to Israel saying, ‘Hey, we’re great friends of yours. Don’t worry, we love you.’ This is nonsense. It’s more a result of what Saudi and the United States have, and Israel is part of that.

Egypt: Sisi’s Leadership Through the Gaza Frame

By Kamal Tabikha

In Egypt, which has fought multiple era-defining wars with Israel, the war in Gaza has been one of the most widely followed media events since it erupted on 7 October. The war, which inevitably had to involve Egypt because of its perpetually problematic borders with both Israel and the Gaza Strip, caught the Arab world’s most populous nation at a bad time: it was preparing for a presidential election while in the grips of one of the worst economic crises in its history.

While militarily the war has remained largely contained inside the Gaza Strip, its political ramifications have been much more far-reaching. It brought to the foreground the deep polarisation that exists within Egyptian media, in which audiences are often caught between opaque and skewed state-sponsored coverage and heavily inflammatory anti-regime tirades. All of these outlets have had to tread carefully while covering the war so as to present the political current they serve in the best light – as most pro-Palestinian and/or anti-Israeli. Only a handful of outlets, like Mada Masr and Al-Manasa, attempt to provide balanced coverage, however, they often have their credibility questioned by state media, and their journalists are routinely arrested on trumped-up charges.

Today, most television channels, print news, and online media that are given permits to broadcast within Egypt are almost entirely controlled by the state. Most have since 2016 been progressively acquired by the United Media Services (UMS), which describes itself as “one of the largest media entities in the Arab world” but is also the media arm of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS). UMS owns the country’s most widely-watched television channels – including DMC, CBC, Al-Hayat, and ONTV – and the largest newspapers – such as Youm7, Al-Dostor, and Al-Gomhuria. This allows the intelligence service to meticulously dictate news content. Notably, Egypt’s ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom index fell from 159th in 2014 to 166th in 2023, out of 180 countries appraised.

However, there is also a strong presence of media produced by political currents opposed to President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s regime. Given the state crackdown on dissent, these alternative news sources mainly broadcast from outside Egypt on social media and video-sharing platforms like YouTube. These alternative sources of news, particularly on social media, have grown in popularity among Egyptians whose distrust of state media has worsened over the past decade. Such outlets could be crudely divided into ones backed by either the Islamist or secular opposition. The former includes daily shows by Mohamed Nasser and Moataz Mattar, both Muslim Brotherhood media adoptees and among El Sisi’s staunchest critics. Notable secular opposition YouTube commentators include Belal Fadl, a former journalist and screenwriter, and Alaa Al-Aswany, an exiled novelist.

All sides condemned Israel’s military actions against Gaza’s civilian population, 20,000 of whom have been killed since the start of the war. However, their coverage of the war varied greatly when it came to some of the finer details. The stakes of the coverage were also raised significantly by the imminence of the presidential election on 18 December and the economic crisis.

El Sisi’s election victory was all but assured through the tight grip that the soldier-turned-leader has over the country. He was, however, seeking more than just a re-election. El Sisi needed a strong enough voter turnout to constitute a convincing mandate for painful foreign and domestic policy decisions – this, at a time when Egyptians continue to reel from record-high inflation and a more than 50% drop in the value of the local currency.

State-controlled media, therefore, skewed its coverage of the war to portray El Sisi as a champion of the Palestinian people, showing round-the-clock coverage of Egyptian aid being delivered to the Rafah border crossing and promotional videos showcasing Egypt’s military might. An elaborate event organized by El Sisi where volunteers packaged Gaza-bound aid received wall-to-wall coverage on state-sponsored channels in November. The event, named after one of El Sisi’s presidential campaign slogans “Tahya Masr” (Long Live Egypt), was then cast by opposition currents as a shameless bid to use the Gaza war to rally voter support.

Indeed, the Gaza war turned out to be a blessing in disguise for El Sisi, because it turned his disgruntled populace’s attention away from their domestic troubles. The president’s refusal to allow for the transfer of Gazans into the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel has been pushing for, was also highlighted by state media as proof that El Sisi supports Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza. However, the opposition then highlighted yet-to-be-confirmed rumors that El Sisi was in talks with Israel and the United States to close a deal to receive a large portion of Gaza’s population in exchange for relieving Egypt’s debt, which has more than quadrupled under his rule.

State-sponsored coverage has also highlighted El Sisi’s statesmanship, often producing long segments on his meetings with the many world leaders that have visited Egypt since 7 October to hold talks on Gaza. The framing of their coverage often inflates Egypt’s role in hostage negotiations between Hamas and Israel, which were also brokered by the US and Qatar.

Conversely, the fact that Egypt could not deliver aid to Gaza through its own Rafah border crossing, until Israel approved it on 21 October, was used by anti-regime media as a mark of Egypt’s waning geopolitical influence and El Sisi’s inability to champion a cause as important to Arabs as Palestine. The opposition’s coverage also highlighted videos posted on social media by Egyptians stuck inside Gaza when the war erupted who were not allowed to return to their own country without Israel’s approval.

The Egyptian state was also accused of limiting journalists’ access to the Rafah border crossing and to Gaza, with RSF alleging in a report that several journalists were asked to reroute their formal requests to the Israeli government instead. State-sponsored outlets have grossly downplayed Egypt’s arguably good relations with Israel and filled their coverage with Arabist commentators glorifying Egypt’s historical opposition to Zionism.

Opposition media, meanwhile, has highlighted the extensive cooperation between both countries’ militaries, particularly when they recently teamed up to fight a low-level ISIS insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. El Sisi’s vehement opposition to Islamist groups such as the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, a defining feature of his two-term presidency, has also been used by opposition media to portray him as more aligned with Israel, which is fighting its own Islamist enemy in Hamas. El Sisi’s stance on Islamism was also reflected in the repeated condemnations of Hamas on state-sponsored channels which, though strongly anti-Israeli, were also critical towards the Gaza’s rulers. Opposition coverage, however, which did not have the same relations with Israel and the US to protect, applauded the militant group for its resistance efforts against Israel or was at least willing to discuss the fine lines of the “do you condemn Hamas?” conundrum.

The war in Gaza remains one of the most followed news events among Egyptians and it will certainly be one of the main issues that El Sisi has to contend with during his third term as Egypt’s president, which he won on 18 December with over 89% of the vote.

Lebanon: Self-preservation Over Sympathy for Gaza

By Adam Chamseddine

“I love my bracelet, but not as much as I love my hand,” is the Lebanese aphorism that might best capture popular sentiment toward the Gaza war, or indeed any event involving Palestinians. While leaders across Lebanon’s fragmented sectarian landscape have voiced varying degrees of solidarity with Gazans, the most prominent narrative to emerge in the past two months has been one of Lebanese self-preservation.

Given the longstanding tensions between Lebanon and Israel, and the destruction the latter visited upon the former during the 2006 war between the two, news of Hamas’ 7 October attack was initially well received by many Lebanese.

The focus of Lebanese media coverage varied among platforms: many media outlets considered the attack a triumph of the Palestinian resistance; others remained skeptical of the cost. Hezbollah’s response was, however, unequivocal. On 8 October the group announced that it was launching what it described as “military operations in support of Gaza and the Palestinian people.”

If the question in the media the day before had been, “What will happen to Gaza?”, it was very quickly replaced by “What will happen to Lebanon?”

It is uncommon for Lebanese media outlets, aligned with rivaling political parties and sectarian interests, to voice unanimity on any issue, but nearly across the board the view has been that Israel’s military actions against Palestinians have been savagely disproportionate. The primary rift in the Lebanese media landscape, however, has been the rising criticism towards Hezbollah’s engagement in the battle.

The fear of a new war between Lebanon and Israel began to overshadow the events in Gaza. Social media, talk shows, and political debates were increasingly marked by concern about Lebanon’s inability to endure another war with Israel, particularly with the country currently struggling through one of the worst economic collapses in modern history.

At the end of October Hezbollah’s media wing then announced that the party’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah would soon give a speech commenting on recent events. The suspense was aided by video clips of Nasrallah on social media, rampant speculation across Lebanese media about what he would say, increased warnings by diplomatic missions urging their citizens to leave the country while they still can, along with daily Israeli threats to turn Beirut into Gaza. Everyone seemed to be asking: would Nasrallah declare a full-scale war with Israel? Would the sufferings of the 2006 war be repeated?

Nasrallah’s first speech on the Gaza war, at the beginning of November, was a pivotal turning point in the public and media sphere. In it, he said that Hezbollah did not seek to provoke a full-scale war but would instead maintain calculated military operations within the unwritten rules of engagement between Lebanon and Israel. This brought a collective sigh of relief across much of the country.

From 7 October until Nasrallah’s speech, events in Palestine and along Lebanon’s southern border were the top priority of major newspapers and political talk shows. Since Nasrallah’s first speech, while the potential for the clashes in south Lebanon to escalate remains an everyday topic for the public and media, pressing domestic issues – such as the year-long presidential vacuum and ongoing financial crisis – have gradually but noticeably returned to the fore. Reporting on Israel’s massacres in Gaza, while still an integral part of every news bulletin, newspaper front pages and political shows, is today secondary, almost habitual, as expected as the weather forecast.

This normalization has allowed Lebanese media to return to its repetitive and vicious cycle of crisis, in which rival politicians trade blame and dodge accountability for the country’s woes. The public debate has largely returned to the daily struggles of living in an economy in freefall and the injustice of the banks withholding the savings of millions of people.

Gaza, and events in the south, have shifted from the focus of daily media attention to a side dish. For most Lebanese, they are fodder for chit-chat, with people’s primary concerns lying elsewhere.

Yemen: Gaza Unites a Divided Country Behind the Houthis

By Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani

Yemenis are passionate about Palestine. Thousands have volunteered in Palestinian liberation movements over the decades, while Yemenis commonly give to annual donation drives – often run by scammers – for Palestine and Bait Al-Maqdis (Jerusalem). The Yemeni media’s response to recent events in the Gaza war has offered evidence that, despite our own vicious civil war, Palestine still unites us.

When Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi movement, announced at the end of October that it had fired missiles and drones towards Israel, Yemenis from all sides cheered. Some social media warriors were quick to dismiss the strikes as symbolic and dared the Houthis to target Red Sea trade routes. When, in November, the Houthis targeted cargo ships offshore of Yemen’s west coast headed to Israeli ports, these critics went quiet.

The Houthis, since taking over the capital, Sana’a, and much of the country’s north in 2014, have severely curtailed Yemen’s once vibrant free press. Today, with just two satellite TV channels, Almahreyah and Belqees, making a symbolic effort at independence, social media has become the main source of information for most Yemenis. And on Yemeni social media, there has been massive support for the Houthi actions against Israel. Even sworn enemies of the Houthis, such as some members of the Islah party, who have been facing off across frontlines with the group for almost a decade, have commended them for standing with Gaza and called on all Yemenis to close ranks in support of Palestine.

When spokespersons for the internationally recognized government, which has tenuously operated from South Yemen since the Houthis overran Sana’a, found fault in the Houthi strikes, the popular response was vicious, calling them clients of the “Zionist Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”. Leading religious clerics from both sides of the Yemen war echoed the same sentiments of support for the Palestinian cause and called for further escalation.

Another stunning example of pro-Palestinian sentiments was demonstrated when the leader of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), in a meeting with United States Special Envoy Tim Lenderking on 7 December, offered to assist a multinational force proposed by Washington to secure the Red Sea, even some of his supporters attacked him and declared their support for Palestine. The STC has since attempted to mount a damage control campaign. This has included publishing pictures of leader Aidarous Al-Zubaidi donning Palestinian Keffiyeh and reminiscing about how the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Marxist state that existed in Yemen’s south from 1967 to 1990, historically always supported the Palestinian cause.

The biggest winner is of course the leader of Ansar Allah, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi. Houthi media regularly publishes excerpts from across the Arab and Islamic worlds praising him as a hero. This aggrandizing rhetoric has included an Omani media figure making the dubious claim that American officials offered to let the Houthis conquer all of Yemen and to provide them with generous reconstruction funds if they stayed out of the Gaza conflict, but their leader refused.

The biggest loser is Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which has kept insisting that Houthi actions are in service of Iran. This shows how little they have learned from recent Yemeni and Arab History. Revolutionary regimes that lack the traditional legitimacy of the monarchies and cannot maintain the momentum of revolutionary legitimacy, depended on the legitimacy derived from espousing and supporting the Palestinian cause.

That is what Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and a host of military and revolutionary Arab regimes did for most of their existence. The Yemeni government’s tone deafness to the overwhelming popular support for Palestine has, in the eyes of the Yemeni public, cost them what is left of the legitimacy granted to them by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216 in 2015. This, while the Houthis have clenched populist legitimacy across the board for their daring defiance of Israel and America. A regional repercussion of the Gaza war may thus be one that helps unify Yemenis under the iron fist of Houthi rule.

Iran: Moderates Resist Conservative Calls for a Regional War

By Hossein Salehi

On 7 October, when Hamas fighters initiated their attack from Gaza into Israel, conservatives and hardliners in Iran, as well as the Islamic Republic's top officials, openly welcomed it. State-run TV channels and news sites showed them taking to the streets, distributing candies to people, and expressing jubilation as they witnessed Israel, which had often boasted about its impregnable intelligence agencies, left in a state of shock.

On social media, reformists and moderates, while defending the Hamas attack as an eruption resulting from years of suffering, humiliation, and torture, objected vehemently to the celebrations by conservatives and hardliners. Instead, they highlighted that ultimately this attack would lead to brutal bloodshed of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis, with no tangible positive outcomes.

A third notable narrative that emerged on social media came from Iranians opposed to the regime, who condemned the Hamas attack and the reports of atrocities. Their perspective was rooted in the belief that Hamas, supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), siphons off Iranian oil revenues even while their country’s own economy continues to struggle under Western sanctions.

As images and video poured through of the children killed in Israel’s bombing and ground attacks on schools, hospitals and civilian structure, public sentiment turned sharply against Israel. While hardliners framed the issue and the martyrdom of Palestinians as a symbolic victory for the Axis of Resistance, reformists approached the situation from a more secular standpoint, aiming to protest Israeli actions from a humanistic perspective. This humanistic viewpoint, rather than an ideological stance, seemed to gain more popular traction across Iranian social media networks.

However, a segment of society, limited to social media, still supported Israel's destruction of Hamas and the flattening of Gaza. Their support was implicitly framed by a desire to undermine the power of the Islamic Republic, which they see as an oppressive force in their own lives.

In its official statements the Islamic Republic, seemingly out of character, aimed to distance itself from any involvement in the October Hamas attack. Diplomatically, Tehran and Washington engaged in dialogue through indirect channels to avert a larger war. This communication sought to maintain the unwritten de-escalation agreement reached a few months earlier in Oman, despite increased attacks by Axis of Resistance forces on American military bases in Syria and Iraq.

Officials in Tehran have been publicly distancing themselves from these attacks, issuing repeated statements emphasizing that members of the Axis of Resistance – including Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and various militias in Syria and Iraq – don’t get orders from Tehran. Such statements are seemingly made to convey that Tehran hasn’t violated the deal.

Behind the scenes, however, conservative elements in Tehran are voicing dissatisfaction with the Supreme Leader's decision not to officially engage the IRGC in the war. Former reformist Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, known for his landmark nuclear deal with the United States in 2015, has said publicly that influential hardliners had urged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to formally involve Iran in the conflict. Their frustration has grown as Hezbollah, despite their expectations, has refrained from fully engaging in the war.

Hossein Amir Abdollah, Iran’s Foreign Minister, speaking recently at a ceremony at Tehran University, acknowledged this by saying “After Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah's speech, some [revolutionary] friends contacted us and said that we were expecting an order to attack the Zionist regime.” He added, “We do not give orders to the resistance groups and they act according to their decisions.”

Prominent reformists have commended Khamenei and Nasrallah as having acted in the best interests of Iran. Zarif has said that Israel's “dream” would be for Iran and Hezbollah to join the conflict, extending the war beyond its current scope and potentially involving the United States. “Israel is trying to somehow drag the war out of [the current geography] and bring America in,” said Zarif.

Individuals close to Khamenei, such as Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, former parliamentary speaker and father-in-law of Khamenei’s son, have echoed Zarif’s sentiments on television, reinforcing the idea that Iran's involvement would serve Israel's interests.

Pushing back on this, hardliners have actively pursued their hawkish agenda on platforms such as Islamic Republic TV to advocate for Iran's entry into the war, attempting to pressure decision-makers by provoking Khamenei’s support base. In this vein, Alireza Panahian, an influential hardline cleric, spoke on TV about the necessity of entering the war.

So far, the pragmatist faction of the Islamic Republic has withstood the hardliners’ push to enter the war. Whether this remains the case is uncertain the longer the slaughter in Gaza continues.


The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.