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