At their one-day summit meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Saturday, the Arab leaders were scheduled to make their response to Israel’s brutal war of aggression against Gaza clear and the threats of a broader regional conflict.
The Arab Summit, called by the Palestinian Authority (PA), should have been the first such major gathering since Israel started its brutal onslaught on Gaza more than a month ago.
The Arab leaders attending were expected to iron out an Arab strategy to address the crisis in Gaza, as Israel continues in its bid to seize complete control over the Strip in a declared attempt to destroy its Hamas-led authority.
They were also supposed to come together to chart a course for the “day after” in Gaza once the fighting there ends, including an expected power vacuum in the Strip and the impact of a widely anticipated exodus of Palestinians fleeing from the massive Israeli campaign.
However, Saudi Arabia, the host country, announced abruptly that a symbolic Arab-Islamic Leadership Summit would be held instead to try to work out “a common position” vis-à-vis “the dangerous and unprecedented developments” in Gaza.
As a result, it was this joint summit that became the centrepiece of the diplomatic response to the war. In their final communiqué, the Arab and Muslim leaders present called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the siege on Gaza and the allowing of humanitarian aid into the Strip.
On the broader issues, the leaders from the 57 Arab and Islamic nations at the summit walked a fine line and reiterated their support for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood, according to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But their statement provided no information about concrete options being considered such as freezing normalisation with Israel, taking punitive actions against countries which support Israel militarily, or initiating proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Tel Aviv for its war crimes.
What was most notably absent in the summit’s policy statement was unequivocal support for the right of the Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation. This commitment many believe is needed to counter Israel’s labelling of the Palestinians fighting against Israel as “terrorism”.
As the devastating attacks on Gaza continue, observers are watching to see what will happen as a result of the humanitarian disaster and political and security chaos in the Strip and how the Arab world will be able to deal with its impacts.
As the clock for a total collapse of Gaza is ticking, regional and international stakeholders are now trying to imagine what the enclave might look like “the day after” the war.
More than 11,000 people have been killed in the violence in Gaza, and 26,475 have been wounded, some 2,600 are missing, and more than 1.6 million have been displaced. Half of the housing units in Gaza have been destroyed, in addition to the enclave’s basic infrastructure.
Though it remains difficult to obtain a clear picture of the Israeli incursion into the territory, Israeli warplanes continue to bombard Gaza from the air while its troops and tanks are advancing deeper on the ground in a move widely feared to lead to increased human casualties and destruction.
Israel has opposed all calls for a ceasefire or even a pause in the hostilities, but under US and international pressure it has agreed to a brief evacuation corridor along Gaza’s main highway for civilians fleeing their homes in the north.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, but has not offered a vision of who would administer the enclave after the war and how it will be connected with the West Bank.
Six weeks into the war, confusion over post-conflict scenarios is adding to unprecedented turbulence in the region and deepening anger over the human catastrophe inside Gaza.
As fighting continues to rage, Israel’s political and military leaders have remained vague about the war’s strategies and objectives, primarily about how it might end and what will come after it.
At the beginning of the Israeli attacks codenamed “Operation Swords of Iron” following the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, Israeli military leaders talked about an “emphasis” on wiping out the militant group in Gaza.
There is no shortage of clues about its tactical operations, which have aimed at isolating Hamas as can be deduced from the push of Israeli troops into northern Gaza.
Taking into consideration the state of the offense-defence imbalance in the war, analysis shows that Israeli troops on the ground are now inside Gaza City, engaging Hamas in complicated street combat.
The final tactical goal of the multiple-phase operation is seemingly to encircle Gaza and neutralise Hamas and other Palestinian factions or force them to surrender or flee.
What remains is the key question of the overall strategy of the military operations and the endgame of the Israeli campaign.
The clearest public statement on post-war plans has come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that Israel “for an indefinite period will have the overall security responsibility [for Gaza].”
This would suggest some future Israeli military presence in Gaza, from which it withdrew in 2005, and it raises speculation about possible ambitions of reoccupying the Strip.
Reports about some of these unsettling goals have been in circulation since the beginning of the war, including Israel’s assuming responsibility for governing Gaza and expelling its population to neighbouring Egypt.
Netanyahu adviser Mark Regev has suggested that Israel is interested in establishing a new framework in the Strip where the Gazans can rule themselves.
Regev, a veteran Israeli diplomat and government spokesman, proposed bringing in international support including from the Arab countries for “the reconstruction of a demilitarised post-Hamas Gaza.”
Among other ideas floated either in the media or by pro-Israeli think-tanks recently has been for an international peacekeeping force under an interim administration for post-war Gaza.
Under such a plan, troops from the US, the EU, and the Arab States that have reached peace agreements with Israel would be given temporary oversight over the Strip and primarily work as a law-enforcement apparatus.
Other options include expanding the work of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) that currently operates in the Sinai Peninsula monitoring the 1979 Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Another possibility is empowering the West Bank-based PA to control and govern Gaza once Israel ends its war against Hamas, with Israel remaining responsible for the enclave’s security.
That option has been laid aside by Netanyahu, who said the PA has failed to “demilitarise” and “deradicalise” Gaza in the past. Instead, he suggested a “civilian authority” backed by “an overriding Israeli military envelope.”
Far-right Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has called for the outright reoccupation of Gaza and the building of Jewish settlements in the territory after the war on the Strip.
But the most frightening objective of the war could be the forced displacement of the Strip’s Palestinian inhabitants, as indicated by the brutal nature of the Israeli aggression on Gaza.
Plans worked out by Israel’s Intelligence Ministry and leaked by Calcalist, an Israeli news Website which is part of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper group, suggest transferring Gazans from the enclave following the war.
Under the three-phase plan, Palestinians forced to flee their homes in Gaza through a “humanitarian corridor” will be sent to settle in northern Sinai in Egypt.
All these proposals have been vehemently dismissed by the Palestinians and the Arab governments as attempts to exploit the Gaza war to liquidate the Palestinian issue.
The PA has rejected the idea of administrating Gaza during the chaotic interim period without being allowed to be fully in charge of the Strip.
It has insisted that it will only return to Gaza as part of a “comprehensive solution” that ends Israel’s occupation of all the Palestinian territories and advances the Palestinian right in statehood.
“We are not going back to Gaza on an Israeli military tank,” PA Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh has said. “We are going to go to Gaza as part of a solution that deals with the question of Palestine and that deals with the occupation.”
The Hamas political and military leadership remains opposed to all these ideas, which it says are aimed at replacing its rule in Gaza with a new Israeli occupation.
The Arab countries have refrained from explicitly saying whether such plans have been discussed in their governments. But at the weekend summit in Riyadh they reiterated their support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
In 2008, however, the idea of sending Arab troops to Gaza was floated to end Hamas’ control there and re-establish the West Bank-based PA after the militant group’s takeover of the Strip.
While these plans have yet to emerge, probably when the outcome of the present military operations becomes clearer, the pressing question will remain of whether the Arab world is prepared for the days or weeks and months after the war.
Obviously, the Arab countries, and in particular those neighbouring Israel, should be worried about any of these Israeli policy options that could be catalysts for more turmoil in their backyard.
Most worrying remains the possibility that the war will trigger a mass exodus as a result of ethnic-cleansing and genocide in Gaza or even in the West Bank as well, which is increasingly and dangerously turning into another combustible hotspot.
There are increasing fears that an Israeli invasion of Gaza will spark a new mass wave of displacement in a replay of what happened in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Millions of Palestinians who were forced to flee then have remained stranded as refugees in the countries that hosted them.
More fundamentally, the humanitarian and geopolitical outcomes of Israel’s full-scale invasion of Gaza are expected to unleash grave consequences and threaten the stability of the already shaky regional order.
Since the war broke out after Hamas’ 7 October attacks, there has been a proliferation of analyses of the causes and effects of the conflict, but all these will be of no use if they do not help to shed light on the future.
The conflict has created a dilemma for many Arab states, which have appeared to be weighing their own options towards these many scenarios and hypotheses while a new regional reality is emerging from the conflict.
Inter-Arab divisions have long blocked leadership gatherings from taking effective or unified measures in the face of challenges, and the recent summit seemed no exception to this rule though the consequences could be even more dire.
The quandary was crystallised by the Riyadh Summit, which was met by criticism by an angry Arab public opinion for apparently being oblivious to reality and falling short on taking concerted actions to confront Israel.
The original plan was to convene an emergency Arab League Summit where Arab leaders could come up with a unified stance to enforce an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and stop the Israeli genocide against the Palestinians.
Ahead of the summit, top Arab diplomats working on draft resolutions were divided over adopting tough measures against Israel including freezing Arab normalisation with Israel and threatening an oil embargo on its supporters.
The discussions prompted Saudi Arabia to change the plans for a more ceremonial joint Arab League-Islamic Cooperation Organisation gathering to avoid further splits that would have underscored the failure to address the conflict.
The divergent opinions reflect efforts by the Arab countries that have normalised relations with Israel or that aspire to do so like Saudi Arabia to reset the regional balance in favour of a new order that they hope will come with their rapprochement with Israel.
Therefore, there is little mystery about what the war could mean for Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in negotiations with the US to make the détente with Israel a linchpin for a new regional security system in which the Kingdom plays a leading role.
The conflict in Gaza has come just as Saudi Arabia was trying to push the envelope and show how far it can go in asserting its regional leadership and rolling back the influence of Iran, its archrival and the main backer of Hamas.
Saudi Arabia might have been able to steer the summit and probably Arab politics towards a soft landing in response to the Israeli aggression against Gaza, but in the long run it will need regional stability to assert the leadership it aspires to.
That ambition is now facing tremendous challenges caused by uncertainty about the events that will shape the course of action and the available alternatives to tackle the current conflict and its aftermath.
The situation in which Saudi Arabia finds itself reflects the difficult choices faced by other Arab stakeholders, who have neither the ability nor the desire to get deeply involved in a messy postwar Gaza.
As Israel’s barbaric aggression continues to wreak havoc on Gaza and its population, the region may be running out of time and the windows of opportunity for a way out of a Catch-22 situation may be becoming increasingly limited.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly