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BEIRUT — Israel and its staunch ally the United States were targets of rage, condemnation and protest that surged across the Middle East as demonstrators and regional governments seethed over a deadly blast at a hospital in Gaza that killed hundreds of people.
Protesters took to the streets from Morocco to Iran, in marches held in front of Israeli or U.S. diplomatic missions or those of other Western allies of Israel, including Britain and France. The blast at the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, which Palestinian officials blamed on an Israeli airstrike, was branded an outrage and a war crime by protesters. Israel said it had evidence the strike was the result of a misfired rocket launched by a Palestinian militant group.
The outbreak of protests unsettled Arab leaders, laid bare fears of a regional conflagration and undermined U.S. assertions, before the crisis, that enmity with Israel was a thing of the past in a Middle East more integrated by peace deals and other diplomatic outreach.
In a moment of extraordinary regional anguish, President Biden landed in Israel to show solidarity with its government. Arab leaders, in turn, canceled a planned meeting with him in Jordan, sensing the fury such a meeting would evoke.
In the region, little attention was paid to Israel’s denial of responsibility, or Biden’s agreement that Palestinian militants were responsible. Rather, influential governments such as Saudi Arabia — which in recent months had been exploring normalized ties with Israel — immediately condemned what it said was a “heinous crime committed by the Israeli occupation forces.”
West Bank protests spread as Gaza war deepens
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government mended relations with Israel recently after a long period of strained ties, posted a message on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “hitting a hospital containing women, children and innocent civilians is the latest example of Israel’s attacks devoid of the most basic human values.” Protesters burned Israeli flags in front of the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
The protests also reflected mounting public dismay at the soaring Palestinian death toll after more than a week of Israeli airstrikes, analysts said. They also posed a challenge to Arab governments who have reached — or were considering — deals normalizing relations with Israel, bargains predicated on the notion that popular expressions of sympathy for Palestinians could be contained.
But in an outburst as sprawling as any in years, protesters waved Palestinian flags atop mopeds in Beirut, outside the U.S. Embassy in Jordan and on a storied Tunisian boulevard. “Where is the Arab army?” university students chanted in Minya, an Egyptian heartland town south of Cairo.
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official speaking to reporters in Beirut on Wednesday, called on Arab and Muslim states to “end all forms of normalization and cooperation” with Israel and to expel its ambassadors from their countries. The Gaza Health inistry said Wednesday that at least 3,478 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed during Israel’s military offensive in the enclave.
People took to the streets late Tuesday, soon after images spread of stricken Palestinians at al-Ahli hospital. In Beirut, demonstrators marched to the U.S. Embassy, as the army barricaded the site to prevent protesters from reaching the facility. Protesters beat on the barricade, trying to tear it down.
Demonstrators gathered at a fire started near the U.S. Embassy outside Lebanon’s capital, Beirut on Oct. 18. (Video: Hunter Williamson)
One man climbed atop the fence and planted a Palestinian flag, to thundering applause. Soldiers and police officers tried to disperse the protesters with water cannons and tear gas. After midnight, demonstrators set fire to a small building near the embassy.
“What happened today was a crime against humanity. It’s a war crime,” said Ali Abdsatter, a protester in Beirut. “It’s not just about the hospital, it’s the whole damn thing,” he added, referring to Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation. “It’s been happening for decades.”
In the Middle East, “the public mood is hotter than it’s been in a very, very long time,” said H.A. Hellyer, an international security studies expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Of course, the presumption being that this was an Israeli missile strike,” he added. For that to change, “the Israelis are going to have to produce really ironclad proof to show that it wasn’t them, and I don’t think they can do that.”
The swift condemnations of the hospital explosion from some Arab governments — such as the United Arab Emirates, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020 — indicated Israel’s withering assault on Gaza was provoking far more anxiety in the region than in recent conflicts past. The most recent conflict started when Hamas militants staged a brazen attack on Israel from Gaza, killing 1400 soldiers and civilians and seizing about 200 hostages.
Nearly a decade ago, several Arab states, including Egypt and the U.A.E., appeared to throw their support behind Israel as it fought Hamas, seeing the Islamist militant group as the greater threat.
But in a statement Wednesday, the Emirates condemned the “Israel attack” on the hospital and called for an “immediate cease-fire” — a step allies Israel and the United States have both ruled out. Israel appears ready for a ground invasion of Gaza that it says is aimed at eliminating Hamas, leading to fears it could ignite a regional war.
Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, also allowed rare public expressions of Palestinian solidarity in a country where protests are effectively banned. “Long live Palestine,” a small group of leftist and liberal political figures chanted outside the U.S. Embassy late Tuesday.
Protests erupted in Ramallah on Oct. 18, after a Gaza hospital was hit by an air strike killing hundreds of people, including children. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
By Wednesday, the protests had grown. Videos posted on social media showed crowds waving Palestinian flags and chanting anti-Israel slogans in the Mediterranean port Alexandria. Large crowds of university students took to the streets Wednesday in Minya, some 160 miles south of Cairo, according to numerous videos posted on social media.
Sisi, in remarks at a news conference German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Cairo on Wednesday, suggested the Egyptian public would protest any move to forcibly displace Palestinians to Egypt’s northern Sinai region — a comment seen as a veiled threat to mobilize the Egyptian people if necessary.
Anger was mounting, too, near the Egyptian border, where truck drivers organized by the Egyptian Red Crescent have been waiting for days to be given the green light to bring humanitarian aid through the Rafah border crossing into Gaza.
In one video posted on TikTok on Tuesday night, a man — apparently involved in the aid effort — yells at the camera: “If there is bombing, I’ll go in. If there is death, I’ll go in. I came here determined to go in.”
In a statement Wednesday, Cairo-based Al-Azhar University, the world’s preeminent institution for Sunni Islamic learning, called on “the Arab and Islamic world” to “radically reconsider its dependence on the arrogant American and European West.”
An accumulation of grievances — over the Arab normalization deals with Israel and incursions onto the holy Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by Israel’s hard-right government — seemed to be fueling the protests, said Zaha Hassan, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While many media organizations were unable to enter Gaza — barred by Israel and Egypt — Palestinians there were talking to Arab outlets including Al Jazeera, which had correspondents in the enclave, and posting on TikTok and other social media outlets, “in real time as things are happening, with anger and urgency,” she said.
That anger, she added, “gets translated, onto the streets.”
Parker reported from Cairo. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.