Creating new perspectives since 2009

Arab songs about Gaza put spotlight on Palestinian issues

February 29, 2024 at 5:54 pm

Musicians Zeid Hamdan (L) and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (R). [Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images for Shubbak]

From pathos to praise of Hamas, songs written by musicians across the Middle East in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza are putting the Palestinian issue back at the forefront of Arab popular culture. The music mixes defiance, helplessness and anger over the Israeli onslaught.

In Cairo, the popular Egyptian wedding singer known as Rudy takes requests for her new lyrics praising Hamas military spokesman Abu Obaida. “Abu Obaida, O Lion-Hearted… set them all ablaze,” she belts out to a percussive beat.

In Jordan, artists from different Arab states gathered in October to record a song dreaming of a Palestinian “return” to lands occupied by Israel. It has been viewed millions of times on social media.

The rise in popularity of songs that sympathise with the Palestinians or encourage Hamas — including by artists who generally avoid politics — reflects anger over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, its occupation of Palestinian territory and US and European support for its military campaign. It also shows the support among Arab people for Hamas and for armed opposition as Israel tries to eradicate the group.

A Hamas cross-border raid on 7 October led to 1,139 Israelis being killed, many of them by members of the Israel Defence Forces. Hamas took 253 hostages back to Gaza. To-date, more than 30,000 Palestinians in the enclave have been killed in the Israeli offensive.

The conflict has proved divisive worldwide and ignited broader cultural battles.

The annual Eurovision song contest, billed as a non-political event, has been marred by controversy over Israel’s entry mentioning the 7 October attack, for example. Vitriolic debates on US university campuses have affected the careers of some staff, and students have accused each other of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

In Israel, artists have also produced songs about 7 October. Some reflect on the suffering of victims, others are vengeful.

READ: As Gaza death toll passes 30,000, grave-digger longs to build houses again

One music video features a survivor of a Hamas attack on a music festival on 7 October. Another, produced by Israeli rapper Subliminal, shows residential blocks in Gaza being flattened by air strikes while Israeli tanks and snipers prepare for war.

In Arab societies, a vast majority of people see the war as a Western-backed assault on Palestinian civilians. Wedding singer Rudy said watching Israeli attacks left her feeling helpless and wanting to sing in support of Hamas. At many weddings where she performs, attendees ask her to sing about Gaza, including her song about Abu Obaida, who became a regular feature on Arab news channels after the war began, appearing masked in videos to read out Hamas statements.

“Abu Obaida, we see him as a hero who stands up against Israel,” said Rudy. “There are children dying and he is standing up to defend them.”

A poll by the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar in January showed that 67 per cent of 8,000 respondents saw the October attack as a “legitimate resistance operation” against the Israeli occupation. Only five per cent said that it was an “illegitimate” attack. Three-quarters viewed the US and Israel as the biggest threats to regional security and stability.

In Saudi Arabia, a poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 96 per cent of respondents believed that Arab countries should cut all ties with Israel. Before 7 October, Palestinian issues had been largely forgotten about as Gulf kingdoms normalised relations with Israel and abandoned demands for a Palestinian state. Now such issues dominate discussions of regional politics, from social media to homes, coffee shops and the halls of power.

Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan said his music now focused on the war and its spill over into Lebanon, where Israel and Hezbollah exchange rocket fire and air strikes. “I don’t perform anymore to promote myself as an artist,” he said. “I am on stage to wake people up and to spread a message of urgency. I am going from fundraiser to fundraiser to protest.”

Arab musicians realise that their music may not change the course of the war, or influence Arab leaders. Nevertheless, Ghaliaa Chaker, whose song “Returning” was recorded in Jordan with 24 other Middle Eastern artists, says that her aim is to keep Gaza’s plight in the spotlight.

“I really hope they [the Palestinians in Gaza] know that they’re in our prayers,” she said. “That’s the best we can hope for… to keep talking about it. Never forget what’s happening.”

READ: Over 100 killed as Israel forces shell crowd waiting for aid in Gaza