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Morocco could pay a heavy price for Israel's latest assault on Gaza

Rabat's neutral response to the deadly strikes, coupled with public opposition to its normalisation with Israel, could weaken the credibility of the royal palace
Smoke and flames rise over Khan Younis, Gaza, during an Israeli air strike on 5 August 2022 (AFP)

Amid the Israeli army's latest assault on Gaza, Moroccan authorities finally shook off their usual diplomatic torpor. In a communique issued by the foreign ministry in early August, Morocco expressed its "deep concern over the serious deterioration of the situation in the Gaza Strip". 

But the kingdom's neutral response was more akin to the carefully worded statements of the European community than to the official declarations of numerous Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria, which all condemned the Israeli attacks.

The Moroccan regime could hardly condemn the military offensive on Gaza, for fear of offending its "new" old partner. Following the Israel-Morocco normalisation agreement signed in 2020, which was sponsored by then-US President Donald Trump, the kingdom has willingly cooperated with Israel, particularly in the field of security.

Pro-Palestinian protests are nothing new in the kingdom, but dissent seems to have hardened in the wake of Morocco's normalised relations with Israel

The days of insisting that normalised relations would allow the kingdom to play "a more active part in the peace process aiming to establish a two-state solution" are long gone. The fact is, Morocco holds little political sway in the region with regards to the Israel-Palestine question - unlike Egypt, which, with the backing of Qatar, was able to broker a tenuous ceasefire

Thus, King Mohammed VI appears to be the victim of his own political stratagem. By playing both sides, his authority as chairman of al-Quds Committee, responsible for helping to safeguard the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has all but crumbled away. 

Contrary to his response in 2021 to the Israeli raids at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the deadly 11-day offensive on the Gaza Strip, the Moroccan monarch did not dare condemn Israeli settlers' recent incursions at Al-Aqsa. Rather, this opportunity was gladly seized by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is hoping to restore his reputation in the Muslim world after his direct involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Mohammed bin Salman's move could very well undermine the symbolic leadership of the Commander of the Faithful, Mohammed VI, particularly with regards to the Palestinian question and Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.  

Waves of popular dissent

The Israeli bombing of Gaza was also a political test of the Moroccan regime's ability to manage the waves of popular dissent that regularly swell in response to Israeli military strikes in Palestine and attempts by Israeli settlers to access Al-Aqsa.

Pro-Palestinian protests are nothing new in the kingdom, but dissent seems to have hardened in the wake of Morocco's normalised relations with Israel.

At the time of the signing of the normalisation agreement, the government was headed by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD). But today, the king can no longer count on the PJD's backing, as the party is openly opposed to the normalisation process.

The PJD condemned Israel's latest aggression against Gaza and reiterated its rejection of Morocco-Israel normalisation - reaffirming the party's traditional stance, which had been momentarily and perhaps reluctantly disregarded when the normalisation deal was signed. 

Moroccans protest Israel’s offensive on Gaza in Rabat on 16 May 2021 (AFP)
Moroccans protest against Israel’s offensive on Gaza in Rabat on 16 May 2021 (AFP)

Now in opposition, the PJD appears to have thrown off its shackles to embrace once more the anti-normalisation position of the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR), widely recognised as the PJD's ideological branch.

At a recent solidarity march for the Palestinian people in Rabat, the head of the MUR, Abderrahim Chikhi, condemned "the brutal attacks perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people, and the muted response of the Moroccan regime". The sentiment was echoed by the Islamist Al Adl Wal Ihsane movement, which also accused Arab leaders who have normalised relations with Israel of "condoning Zionist crimes".

Given the momentum of current protests, closer ties between the PJD-MUR and Al Adl Wal Ihsane are likely to emerge, which could ultimately lead to the further hardening of popular dissent in Morocco, particularly in relation to such mobilising issues as the Palestinian question.

With each new Israeli military offensive, political parties across the country, including leftists such as the Unified Socialist Party, vow to rally their troops to defend the Palestinian people. Israeli military offensives, like the most recent strike on Gaza, have considerable long-term political consequences in Rabat.

Tensions with Algeria

Israel, meanwhile, has been pressuring Moroccan authorities to speed up normalisation, left, right and centre. In November 2021, despite mounting tensions between Rabat and Algiers over Morocco's geopolitical and military rapprochement with Israel and the US, a major security agreement was signed in Rabat by Benny Gantz, the first Israeli defence minister to visit the North African kingdom.

This past June, Israeli observers participated for the first time in the African Lion 2022 military exercise. In July, the chief of Israel's armed forces, Aviv Kochavi, visited Morocco. This is not even to mention the Moroccan intelligence services' large-scale cyber surveillance programme, which targeted, among others, Algerian officials using the Israeli Pegasus spyware.

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All of this has only served to fan the flames of discord between the enemy brothers of North Africa. Algeria is fiercely opposed to the normalisation accords and sees the Morocco-Israel rapprochement as nothing short of a destabilisation campaign.

Thus, in a speech to the nation in late July, Mohammed VI, in all probability called to order by western powers, attempted to quell the anger of Algiers by urging Moroccans to preserve the spirit of "good neighbourliness towards our Algerian brothers". 

Algeria is slated to host the Arab League summit in November, at which time the costs and benefits of normalisation with Israel will surely be addressed. Meanwhile, Algiers is perhaps counting on the intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Algeria this month and was no doubt informed of the tangible "threats" that military cooperation between Morocco and Israel posed for the region. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

This article has been translated and condensed from the MEE French edition.

Aziz Chahir is an associate researcher at the Jacques-Berque Center in Rabat, and the secretary general of the Moroccan Center for Refugee Studies (CMER). He is the author of Who governs Morocco: a sociological study on political leadership (L'Harmattan, 2015). Aziz Chahir est docteur en sciences politiques et enseignant-chercheur à Salé, au Maroc. Il travaille notamment sur les questions relatives au leadership, à la formation des élites politiques et à la gouvernabilité. Il s’intéresse aussi aux processus de démocratisation et de sécularisation dans les sociétés arabo-islamiques, aux conflits identitaires (le mouvement culturel amazigh) et aux questions liées aux migrations forcées. Consultant international et chercheur associé au Centre Jacques-Berque à Rabat, et secrétaire général du Centre marocain des études sur les réfugiés (CMER), il est l’auteur de Qui gouverne le Maroc : étude sociologique sur le leadership politique (L’Harmattan, 2015).
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