The Arabs and the war on Gaza: A question of collective action

Bassem Aly, Tuesday 22 Jul 2014

In light of past and present indications, how can the Arab states support the Palestinian people in Gaza?

A Lebanese activist waves a Palestinian flag during a protest against the war in Gaza, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, July 21, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Readers of the Palestinian-Israeli history will easily note the role played by Arab countries in this political conflict that has existed for nearly seven decades. The nature and scope of such an involvement may have varied from time to time, but it has never vanished.

As a new round in the Gaza war rages on between Israeli troops and the Islamist Hamas movement, the question begs to be asked: How are Arab governments reacting this time?

For experts, some believe that much work can be carried out -- particularly under the umbrella of the Arab League -- while others opine that a series of obstacles hinder the effecting of a strong, collective action.

What have the Arabs done for Gaza this time?

Since the start of Israel’s aerial and ground offensives on 8 July, nearly 600 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more injured. Israel, on the other hand, has lost 27 people.

On the first day of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, Head of the Arab League Nabil El-Arabi called on the UN Security Council to convene immediately and take the "necessary measures" to stop the Israeli aggression.

El-Arabi expressed concern over the humanitarian status of the Palestinian people in Gaza in light of Israel's continued crimes and violations against civilians, which blatantly breach international humanitarian law.

Two days later, on 10 July, the Security Council held an emergency meeting, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asserting the urgency of avoiding, more than ever, another Palestinian-Israeli war. However, he also claimed that the threat of an Israeli ground offensive was only preventable if Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel.

The second comment by the Arab League came on 15 July during an extraordinary league session.

Calling for "international protection" for the Palestinians, Arab foreign ministers called on all parties to accept the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire.
In an e-mail-based interview, however, Ben White, a researcher at the Journal of Palestine Studies, said he believed the Arab League "could do much more".

"There are steps and measures available to the League, and to member-states, that would significantly increase pressure on Israel -- such as, for example, advocating for and pushing for a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel through the UN," he suggested.

And prior to that?

No political action against Israel has been adopted until now in the current war between Israel and Hamas, aside from the pan-Arab organisation's aforementioned statements. Previously, however, some significant steps had been taken that deserve mentioning here.

Defending it for several years afterwards, the Arab League adopted the so-called Arab peace initiative in 2002 during the annual Arab League Summit in Beirut.

The plan was based on the land for peace principle, as well as Israeli's acceptance of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, the Arab states would be committed to the establishment of peaceful relations with Israel. Israel, however, refused to commit to the plan.

The Arab League's biggest contribution to the Palestinians came in 2011 as it backed the Palestinian plan to seek full UN membership, which came in response to the constantly failed talks on statehood with the Israeli side.

The United States blocked the Palestinian request made by President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2011. But, in 2012, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to lift the status of the Palestinian Authority from an observer entity to a "non-member observer state", the same status as the Vatican.

Continuously, the Arab League had supported Egypt's previous reconciliation endeavours between Fatah and Hamas.

The two major blocs in Palestinian politics finally managed on 2 June to finalise a new government following seven years of enmity and failed attempts at compromise.

Israel's premier Benjamin Netanyahu warned against any international rush to recognise a Palestinian government constituted on the basis of a unity pact between Hamas and Fatah, a major cause of the ongoing Hamas-Israel war according to some commentators.

Kamel Hawwash, a British-Palestinian Professor at the University of Birmingham, had told Ahram Online then that Israel was against a single Palestinian government.

“It’s the most obvious symbol,” he asserted. Hawwash indicated that Israel needs a strong Palestinian Authority to maintain security control over the West Bank, but specifically wants to weaken Hamas.

All rounds of peace talks witnessed the exclusion of Hamas – described by Netanyahu as a terrorist organisation – which has no official dealings with either Israel or the West.

Troubled waters

One conclusion to reach about the situation in Gaza: there is no unified Arab stance. 

Hamas has rejected Egypt's initiative for an "immediate" ceasefire to end hostilities from both sides.

The plan -- accepted by Israel -- stipulated that Cairo host high-level delegations from both Israeli and Palestinian factions to discuss trust-building measures required for confirming the implementation of the deal.

Several international diplomatic efforts took place this week in order to end the war, including the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo. "We do believe that there's not another viable plan out there," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said earlier.

Abbas met with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Thursday. Both leaders believe a ceasefire is to be based on the terms and conditions of the Cairo-brokered ceasefire of 2012.

In Turkey, Abbas held a news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Istanbul. "Israel accepted the ceasefire proposal. We [the Palestinians] must also accept it so that we can put the Israeli side at unease," AFP quoted Abbas as saying.

According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Abbas wants France to lobby Qatar and Turkey -- Hamas allies -- to pressure the Islamist movement into accepting the truce.

The two men met at Cairo airport before Abbas left to Turkey on Friday.

On Monday, Egypt said it might be willing to amend its truce initiative in order to accommodate Hamas.

These conditions include lifting the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza and the release of several hundred Palestinians arrested by Israel last month during its search for three Jewish settlers abducted in the occupied West Bank, Reuters reported.

Moataz Salama, senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, related Hamas' motives to refuse Cairo's plan with its affiliation to Egypt's now-banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The relationship between Egypt and Hamas had greatly deteriorated following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Since then, Egypt became at odds with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Relations between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, mainly Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, took the same deteriorating path. In March, the three governments withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, accusing it of interfering in their affairs and supporting the Brotherhood. 

Abu Dhabi has accused Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV channel and websites of "fabricating" information suggesting that the UAE supported Israel's operation in Gaza, in the latest tensions between both countries.

UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash demanded an "official apology" from Doha-based Al Jazeera for publishing news stating that a meeting had taken place between foreign ministers of the UAE and Israel, local media said on Monday.

The website of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr had reported on Saturday that UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahayan had met with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman and proposed "financing" the Israeli "aggression" against Gaza "on the condition that Hamas would be completely eliminated".

Al Jazeera was quoting a website named "Arabi21" which, in turn, said it was quoting Israel's Channel 2.

"Hamas, as well as Qatar, think they can abort Egypt's role in the ceasefire instead of integrating with it, but apparently they don't understand the historical aspect of Egypt in Gaza and its ability to be the only protector of any concluded agreements," Salama asserted.

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