With Mideast in turmoil, Palestinians feel less backing

  • World
  • Thursday, 31 Jul 2014

BEIRUT/CAIRO (Reuters) - With the Middle East ablaze with multiple crises, Palestinians are getting less Arab support than before in their latest battle with Israel in Gaza. There may have been more solidarity on the streets of Paris and New York than in Cairo or Beirut.

Arab nations that long championed the Palestinian cause are now consumed by their own conflicts, including sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq, and Egypt's political battle with the Muslim Brotherhood that has drawn in rival Gulf states.

The death toll in the Israeli offensive launched on July 8 stands at more than 1,300 Palestinians. Fifty-nine Israelis have been killed, most of them soldiers. Some Palestinians say they have been abandoned.

Once unthinkable, commentators in Egypt have directed criticism at the Palestinians rather than at Israel. The shift echoes the Egyptian state's hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood - the ideological parent of the Hamas group that runs Gaza.

"Let Gaza burn with those who are in it," said Tawfik Okasha, a prominent pundit on a prime time Egyptian TV show.

The Cairo-based Arab League has held only one meeting during the latest crisis, reflecting friction among Arab states at odds over other issues including last year's army overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood head of state in Egypt.

"There is no doubt the Palestinians this time feel they are alone in this battle, which is more violent than the previous battles," said Khalil Shaheen, a Palestinian political analyst based in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

There are still plenty of statements of support across the Arab world, where the Palestinian cause has been a rallying cry since the creation of Israel in 1948.

In gestures of solidarity, Lebanese lawmakers convened a session of parliament for Gaza, and Algeria urged its people to observe a minute of silence. There have also been some protests.

But enthusiasm for taking to the streets appears limited. Some cite fatigue stemming from the "Arab Spring" uprisings that brought hopes of democracy in 2011 before descending into the chaos engulfing much of the region. Others see social media rather than the street as the best way to express solidarity.

"On both popular and official levels, Arab support is inadequate," Shaheen added.

Egypt's new president, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been cursed during protests in Ramallah. It is a stark contrast to 2012, the last round of major conflict in Gaza, when Hamas leaders were hosted in Cairo by President Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood politician overthrown by Sisi last year.

Some dissident Egyptians, opposed to what they describe as government efforts at "brainwashing" the public, say they want to protest for Gaza but fear arrest under laws that have been used to crush the opposition.

"There has been no pro-Gaza activism in Egypt. It's quite surprising and possibly even shameful that in places like the UK there are such big rallies and in Egypt there is nothing," said Wael Eskandar, an Egyptian blogger and journalist.

"The amount of detentions and mass brutality and the amount of public support for the (Egyptian) regime doing whatever it wants with impunity all adds up to no action on the street."


Saudi Arabia, which backs Egypt's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, has supported Egyptian diplomacy in the Gaza crisis. The Egyptians complained that Qatar, the gas-rich Gulf emirate that supported the Brotherhood government, had conspired to undermine their mediation, after Hamas rejected Egyptian proposals that had been accepted by Israel.

Saudi Arabia appears to be preoccupied by risks elsewhere. Its top cleric used a sermon marking the Islamic Eid holiday to warn Saudi youths against going abroad to fight - a reference to the wars in Syria and Iraq that are drawing in Sunni militants.

A news story on his remarks published by the leading Saudi newspaper al-Eqtisadiah made no mention of Gaza.

"The Palestinian cause was something that used to unite all Arabs but now there are divisions on everything: divisions about showing sympathy, divisions about the Egyptian initiative," said Jamal Kashoggi, a leading Saudi commentator.

"It is easy to find a column in an Arab paper that blames Hamas for the Israeli aggression in Gaza. Previously, even writers who harboured such an idea would be ashamed to publish it," he said.


Among many Arabs angered by the Israeli offensive, there is frustration with the policies of their own governments.

"Everywhere I go the talk of people during Eid visits is Gaza where people say: 'God be with Hamas and the resistance'," said Khalil Khaleyleh, a Jordanian businessman, referring to this week's Eid al-Fitr Muslim festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

"Because Gaza has been let down by Arab (leaders), this has made people sympathise with Hamas," he said.

Ali Mohammed, a 35-year old banker from Bahrain, said: The pictures of the dead children that we see everyday are devastating. I don’t understand what the Arab world is waiting for."

Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group that last fought a war with Israel in 2006, has been drawn into the sectarian civil war in Syria, where it is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces against Sunni Muslim insurgents.

That conflict exposed a sectarian split between Hezbollah and Hamas - groups that have cast themselves as part of the "resistance" to Israel. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, last week pledged full support to Hamas, though he did not say what his group might do to help.

In his Eid sermon, leading Lebanese Shi'ite cleric Ali Fadlallah highlighted a twin threat from Israel and radical Sunni militants. Sunni militants have staged repeated bomb attacks on Shi'ite targets in Lebanon over the last year, a spillover of the sectarian conflict in Syria.

Devastation wrought by years of turmoil in Iraq, another arena of Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, has ground its people down, said Ismael al-Nuami, a retired teacher. "They are too exhausted to think about Palestinians," he said.

Younis Kareem, a Baghdad taxi driver, added: "We have enough blood and bombs and destruction. We are fed up and the last thing we should watch is a war somewhere else."

Raafat Murra, a Hamas official based in Lebanon, said the reaction in the Arab world did not match the scale of destruction in Gaza. This was because of "the weak Arab official position, and partly because the social and political crises going on in the Arab world", he said.

By contrast, he said people in Europe and the United States had "condemned the Israeli barbarity to a great degree".

(Additonal reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Mohamed Abdelleh in Cairo, Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria, Maha El Dahan in Abu Dhabi, Farishta Saeed in Bahrain, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould in Algiers; Editing by Paul Taylor)

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