Angry demonstrations broke out across the Arab world Saturday and diplomats in the region called for emergency measures in the aftermath of Israel’s deadly air attacks against Hamas security strongholds in the Gaza Strip.
But few expect the uproar to do more than reinforce regional trends: Pro-U.S. Arab governments continue to alienate large portions of their populations despite statements of protest against Israel, analysts said, while Iran and Syria score propaganda points for their continuing patronage of Islamic militant groups such as Hamas that fight Israel.
“It will give Iran and Syria a boost,” said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for the pro-Western Lebanese daily An Nahar. “They will use it to say to the Arab people, ‘Your regimes, presidents and kings won’t help. They turn a blind eye to what is happening.’ ”
Pan-Arab satellite channels broadcast nearly nonstop images of bloodied Palestinian bodies, ambulances with sirens screaming and women wailing in hospital corridors. In interviews, enraged men and women from Yemen to Morocco condemned the air attacks, which came three days after militants in Gaza launched an estimated 30 rockets and at least 20 mortar shells at targets in southern Israel.
Al Jazeera, the most popular of the channels, quickly designed a logo for its live coverage, calling it “Gaza Under Fire.”
Amid the cacophony, some Arabs and other Muslims condemned not just Israel but also U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt, whose president, Hosni Mubarak, met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni days before Israel’s assault. Mubarak, who led an unsuccessful mediation effort seeking to extend a six-month truce between Israel and Hamas that ended Dec. 19, termed the Israeli action “military aggression” and lodged a formal protest with Israel’s ambassador.
“This is going to embarrass the Arab regimes, especially those that have ties with Israel and those who have ties with the U.S. and followed the American strategy and the American policy over the last few years,” said Mohammed Masri, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman. “The Arab street is very angry. They see it as though the Egyptians have given the green light to attack Gaza.”
An escalation of the conflict between Hamas and Israel had been expected for days. But the extent of the air attacks, which Palestinian health officials said left more than 200 people dead, caught many off guard.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel’s “excessive use of force” while recognizing the Jewish state’s security concerns. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana condemned Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel but also said that the Israeli airstrikes “are inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians.”
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, leader of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, called the Israeli offensive a “war crime.” On the other hand, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza.
“The cease-fire should be restored immediately,” she said.
Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group, seized control of Gaza after a unity government with the rival Fatah movement collapsed last year. The group, which has long called for the destruction of Israel, won the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections in early 2006.
Arab foreign ministers said they would convene an emergency meeting Wednesday in Cairo.
“We are facing a continuing spectacle which has been carefully planned,” Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters in Cairo. “So we have to expect that there will be many casualties. We face a major humanitarian catastrophe.”
Demonstrations erupted in Amman, the capital of Jordan, a strong ally of the U.S., as well as in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and the West Bank, home to the Fatah movement. Businesses in mostly Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank shuttered in a general strike as protests in Hebron, Ramallah and other West Bank towns turned into street battles between young stone-throwing men and Israeli troops firing rubber bullets and tear gas. Fatah-dominated Palestinian security forces intervened to try to keep the two sides from confronting each other.
In Beirut, demonstrators gathered in front of the Egyptian Embassy, some saying they were supporters of Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia and political group that fought a war against Israel in 2006 and has called for massive demonstrations.
An announcer on Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station said Israel would not have launched the offensive without Arab leaders’ acquiescence.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi described the offensive as “murders” that “are the results of the international community’s silence,” according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
Analyst Masri said nervous Arab governments facing a popular uproar would have no choice but to respond.
“The reaction of the Arab street shows that the Palestinian issue is not just about Palestinians, but it is an Arab question and an Arab problem,” he said. “It’s still in the hearts and minds of the Arab people.”
But few expected the uproar to destabilize long-unpopular regimes. This month a phalanx of police officers stood outside the American University of Beirut and kept a stern eye on students entering and exiting the campus during a pro-Palestinian demonstration to make sure it didn’t extend beyond the leafy college’s walls.
Despite widespread anger about the situation in Gaza, Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the university, said, “Arab publics are too weak to do anything about it.”
Special correspondents Raed Rafei in Beirut, Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.