A Palestinian boy plays with balloons as families leave their homes in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighbourhood. Photo: Getty
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From Egypt to Saudi Arabia, the Arab world has abandoned the Palestinians

The inconvenient truth is that the collective punishment of the Pales­tinian people in Gaza is a collective endeavour in its own right – led by Israel, enforced by Egypt, endorsed by Saudi Arabia.

Forget for one moment the timid pronouncements of Barack Obama and David Cameron. When will Arab rulers dare raise their voice against Israel’s pounding of Gaza? “I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummelling of Hamas,” the former US diplomat Aaron David Miller, who advised Presidents Clinton and Bush on the Middle East, told the New York Times on 30 July. Their silence, he said, “is deafening”.

But their silence isn’t the worst part; their complicity is. Take the collective punishment of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza which is referred to as the “blockade”. Israeli officials may have bragged to their US counterparts that they wanted to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge”, but they couldn’t have maintained their seven-year siege of Gaza without help.

Remember: Israel controls only three sides of the strip. Who controls the fourth? Egypt, the proud, self-styled “heart of the Arab world”. Yet, from Air Chief Marshal Hosni Mubarak to General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Arab Republic of Egypt has been a keen accomplice in Israel’s strangulation of Gaza. The former Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, may have been willing to consider easing the blockade between 2012 and 2013, but Sisi, “elected” president in May this year after a military coup, is a sworn enemy of the Brotherhood and its Hamas affiliate.

In recent months, the junta in Cairo has resealed its border with Gaza, destroyed most of the tunnels that were lifelines for its residents and allowed a mere 140 injured Palestinians to cross into Egypt through Rafah – the only exit from the Strip that isn’t controlled by the Israelis. The blockade of Gaza is, thus, a joint Israeli-Egyptian crime.

Consider also the stance of Saudi Arabia. “Attack on Gaza by Saudi royal appointment”, read the headline on a Huffington Post blog on 20 July by the veteran foreign correspondent David Hearst, who claimed that “Mossad and Saudi intelligence officials meet regularly . . . and they are hand in glove on Iran”.

On 1 August, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia released a statement denouncing the killings in Gaza as a “collective massacre” but conveniently, as the Associated Press pointed out, “stopped short of directly condemning Israel” and “did not call for any specific action to be taken against Israel”. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh, claimed that pro-Palestinian demonstrations were “just demagogic actions that won’t help Palestinians”.

Then there is Syria. The Respect MP, George Galloway, may have praised the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad once as the “last Arab ruler” because of the latter’s supposed willingness to stand up to Israel, but Assad’s brutal security forces have bombed and besieged the Palestinian refugees of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. According to Amnesty International, Syrian forces have also been “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon” and have forced the refugees to “resort to eating cats and dogs”.

The rest of the Arab countries don’t have much better records. In Lebanon, 400,000-odd Palestinian refugees languish in refugee camps where the conditions are nothing short of horrific. They are prevented by law from working in the public sector or using state medical and education facilities and are also barred from buying property.

In Jordan, ethnic Jordanians or “East Bankers” resent the “West Bank” Palestinian majority, including their queen, Rania. And in Kuwait in 1991, after the first Gulf war, as many as 200,000 Palestinians were forced out of the country as punishment for Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein; up to 4,000 Palestinians were reportedly killed in vigilante attacks.

This Arab betrayal of the Palestinian cause has deep roots. In his 1988 book, Collusion Across the Jordan, the Israeli-British historian Avi Shlaim described how King Abdullah of (what was then) Transjordan worked with the Israelis, behind the scenes, to prevent the Palestinians from establishing their own state in 1948.

“Palestine has been the dominant issue on the agenda of the Arab League since its birth in 1945,” Shlaim, now emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford, tells me. “But ideological commitment to the Palestinian cause has never been translated into effective support. “So one has to distinguish between the rhetorical and the practical level of Arab foreign policy.”

Today, most of the unelected leaders of the Arab world, from the generals of North Africa to the petromonarchs of the Gulf, see the Muslim Brotherhood and fellow-travellers such as Hamas as a bigger threat to their own rule than the Israel Defence Forces. Only the emirate of Qatar maintains close ties with both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza; the rest of the region’s despots and dictators would be delighted to see the Israelis deliver a knockout blow to the Sunni Islamists of Gaza – and, for that matter, to the Shia Islamists of Iran.

Let’s be clear: the inconvenient truth is that the collective punishment of the Pales­tinian people in Gaza is a collective endeavour in its own right – led by Israel, enforced by Egypt, endorsed by Saudi Arabia.

Pity the poor Palestinians. Their territories are occupied by the Jewish state; their cause is abandoned by the Arab world. 

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer, and works for al-Jazeera English and the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.