Tunis, Tunisia – Tunis has become the latest Arab capital to voice its support for Palestinians amid the most significant crisis to have erupted across the region in recent memory.
Following the lead of protesters in Amman, Baghdad and Cairo, around 3,000 people took to Tunis’s streets on Thursday in a groundswell of solidarity for Palestinians currently facing Israeli bombardment.
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Meanwhile, in Gaza, Israel continued its sixth day of air strikes in response to Saturday’s surprise attack from the Palestinian group Hamas, which resulted in hundreds killed and more than 150 Israelis held captive.
But the Israeli response has also left civilians killed, injured and displaced. Gaza’s health ministry estimates that 1,537 Palestinians have died in the bombardment as of Friday morning, and an Israel-imposed blockade has cut off supplies of food, water, electricity and fuel to the territory, home to 2.3 million people.
Marching through a tunnel of trees on the Avenue de la Liberte in downtown Tunis, 18-year-old student Ayoub Alouj expressed concern for what he considered Israeli abuses in Gaza.
“This is a critical moment and we want to say that we’re with Palestine and against the Zionist movement,” he said as he and other demonstrators approached the massive synagogue in central Tunis that the march filed past.
“I have no problem with Jews,” Alouj added. “Only with Zionists.”
Protesters like Alouj are part of a growing call for justice that has united countries across the Arab world.
Even government critics joined the marches in Tunis, defying an order banning them from appearing at public gatherings. Their appearance was a reflection of the surge of public support for the Palestinian cause.
On Tuesday, lawyer Ayachi Hammami was placed under such a ban for his activism work. Nevertheless, he and other critics of Tunisian President Kais Saied hit the streets to raise their voices in protest.
“Nothing can stop me from protesting, especially for Palestine,” he told The New Arab news outlet from the demonstrations on Thursday.
The question of Israeli violence carries particular resonance in Tunisia. In 2016, gunmen said to belong to the Israeli secret service agency Mossad tracked and killed local professor and engineer Mohamed Zouari near the Tunisian city of Sfax.
An alleged member of Hamas, Zouari is credited with designing the drones that are believed to have played a critical role in the attack on Israel last weekend.
In 1985, Israel also carried out an attack on Tunisian soil, when its jets bombed the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization outside Tunis. The United Nations Security Council condemned the bombing, though the United States abstained from a vote on the matter.
On the streets of Tunis on Thursday, 73-year-old Ibrahim Boukari said he has been marching against Israel almost as long as Palestine has been occupied.
Many refer to the start of the occupation in 1948 as the Nabka or “catastrophe”, an event that saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced as the state of Israel was established.
That history and its legacy has been a through-line in Boukari’s life.
“Sometimes, like today, it feels very prominent. Other times, there’s nothing,” he told Al Jazeera through a translator, speaking to the ebb and flow of the violence.
Samir Elouaer’s hoarse voice was among those mixing in with the din of Thursday’s protest. Behind dark glasses, his near-sightless eyes stared dead ahead, as he held a flag before him like a shield.
”Countries like America are part of this,” Elouaer said through a translator. The US remains one of Israel’s staunchest allies, and it contributes about $3bn in aid to the country every year. “They led us to this. They contributed.”
Some protesters took aim at the US’s steadfast support for Israel, which has been accused by human rights organisations like Amnesty International of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.
“Israel has committed many horrendous crimes, from the slaughter of children to acts of genocide,” 28-year-old Youssef Khrairef said through a translator, his black-and-white keffiyeh hanging loosely from his shoulders.
He stood in the Tunis city centre among a small group of fellow lawyers, their dress robes — worn at the request of their union — setting them apart in the unseasonable heat.
“The one time that Palestinians decide to defend themselves and take the fight to Israel, everyone took the side of Israel against Palestine,” Khrairef said.
For President Saied, the war in Gaza has provided some vindication for his unflinching stance on Israel.
During the 2019 presidential election, Saied called any move to normalise relations with Israel “treasonous”. He has continued to champion Tunisia’s unwavering support for Palestine’s right to resist occupation.
But Thursday’s massive show of support for the Palestinian cause may not translate into boosted approval ratings for Saied’s government. His administration faces strong criticism over rising food prices and shortages of staple goods.
On Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis, history teacher Oumeima Aissaoui acknowledged Saied’s support for Palestine. But she nevertheless expressed concern about Tunisia’s domestic plight.
“We’re facing an economic crisis, and it’s getting worse and worse all the time,” she said.
“Kais Saied will always be known for what he did in July 2021,” Aissaoui added, referencing an incident when the president dismissed the prime minister and shuttered parliament in a move his critics labelled a coup.
But, she said, Saied’s stance on Israel was a mark in his favour. “On this, he probably made the right decision.”