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Fearing war and unrest, Arab leaders demand end to Israeli assault on Gaza

BEIRUT — Weeks before Hamas’s deadly attack plunged the region into turmoil, a senior official from the United Arab Emirates hailed his nation’s recent diplomatic accord with Israel as a success.

The Palestinians “haven’t done anything” with years of Emirati support, presidential adviser Anwar Gargash told a diplomatic summit in New York last month. So his government had struck its own bargain with Israel.

The message seemed clear: Plans for fashioning a new and prosperous Middle East would no longer be bogged down by the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Now, the UAE and other Arab states are grappling with a Middle East on the edge of calamity. Israel’s impending invasion of Gaza has threatened to trigger a multi-front war involving Iran and its allies. As the Palestinian death toll soars, protests have shaken regional capitals, with anger boiling over at Israel and the military support it receives from the United States.

Arab governments — even those that have drawn closer to Israel in recent years — have condemned the country’s military assault on Gaza. Among them are states that stood by as the U.S.-led peace process collapsed and Palestinian suffering festered — a neglect that analysts attribute to a mix of hopelessness, antipathy to Palestinian leadership or a focus inward, on domestic concerns.

But furious citizens and the threat of a widening war have forced the conflict back to the top of their agendas.

“We must recognize that by continuing to fail to respond to the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for a country in their homeland, we fuel this unrelenting cycle of violence and hatred,” Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE ambassador to the United Nations, warned the Security Council last week.

Leaders throughout the Middle East are grasping for responses that channel the public’s outrage while guarding their own interests. Some — in Egypt and Lebanon — are bracing for spillover from the war at a time of serious economic turmoil. Others, in the Persian Gulf, want to protect their long-term security and economic projects with Israel and Western partners.

Since Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 people and seizing about 200 hostages, at least 6,500 Palestinians have been killed during weeks of Israeli airstrikes, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Hundreds of other people are unaccounted for and presumed dead under the rubble, Palestinian health officials have said.

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Pictures and videos of the carnage — of body bags, pancaked buildings and children covered in blood and dust — have been widely shared around the Arab world on social media.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II canceled meetings last week with President Biden after a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital. Egypt took the rare step of allowing public demonstrations Friday in support of besieged Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia — which before the crisis was contemplating its own diplomatic normalization with Israel — condemned the killing of civilians by both sides but singled out Israel in calls to “lift the siege and stop military activity that has taken innocent lives and threatens regional and international stability.”

Nusseibeh said that the plan hammered out with Israeli and U.S. partners to deliver “coexistence and cooperation” was now in jeopardy. “The indiscriminate damage visited upon the innocent people of Gaza in pursuit of Israel’s security risks extinguishing that hope,” Nusseibeh said.

The wording of the statements varied. But the message was strikingly cohesive for “a group of countries that are not always talking in the same voice and tenor,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst and director of the U.S. program at the International Crisis Group.

“The stakes are higher. It’s not the same script,” Hanna said. They’re signaling “that the region can’t withstand what they worry is to come.”

Warning signs of an explosion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been blinking red for more than a year.

In January, a far-right government took power in Israel, with ministers who vowed to impose their ultranationalist, ultra-Orthodox agendas on both Israel and the Palestinian territories. In the occupied West Bank, the government “empowered settlers to attack Palestinian villages, to push Palestinians off their land, in very aggressive ways,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.N. official and a veteran U.S. diplomat who served in several Middle Eastern capitals.

Months of escalating Israeli military raids have made 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the United Nations started tracking deaths two decades ago.

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New Palestinian militant groups began forming in the West Bank, carrying out attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, their prominence and appeal eclipsing that of the weak and discredited Palestinian Authority. The situation prompted a rare high-level warning in February from CIA Director William J. Burns, who spoke of “greater fragility and greater violence” after a visit to the region.

“I’m concerned,” said Burns, who served as a senior diplomat during the bloody second intifada in the early 2000s. “A lot of what we’re seeing today has a very unhappy resemblance to what we saw back then.”

As tensions soared in the West Bank, misery and despair deepened in Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians are crammed into a tiny enclave with rampant poverty and unemployment, blockaded by Israel and Egypt.

The region’s volatility was no secret, Feltman said, noting “many warnings from Arab governments to Israel, from the United States and Western governments, that there needed to be some attention paid to the rising violence on the West Bank that risked starting a third intifada.”

There was little incentive for Israel to heed such warnings, analysts said. For years, the United States and its Arab partners had other priorities.

For Washington, competition with Russia and China took precedence over the Middle East. Successive U.S. administrations treated the region primarily as a battleground for rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, with little consideration for Arab states’ interests and politics, analysts and rights activists complained.

“It’s not that the U.S. is withdrawing per se — it’s still around, the bases are still there, but their attention is being diverted elsewhere,” said H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As a result, Washington’s Arab allies began to rethink the region’s security architecture, strengthening outreach to China, for example, and more recently mending ties with longtime adversary Iran. There were other preoccupations, including a nearly four-year feud between several Arab countries and Qatar.

U.S. efforts to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians had languished for years, said Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and a former Jordanian foreign minister. The last serious attempt came during the Obama administration. When Biden took office, his administration made clear “on Day 1” that it did not see brokering agreements between Israelis and Palestinians as a priority, Muasher said.

“So the only thing the United States did was pursue normalization agreements,” Muasher said, referring to the Abraham Accords, President Donald Trump’s foreign policy showpiece, later adopted by the Biden administration as a pillar of its Middle East strategy.

The effort aimed to broker bilateral deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The first agreements, with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in September 2020, made only cursory mention of the Palestinians. A deal between Morocco and Israel followed a few months later. Palestinian leaders viewed the pacts as a stunning betrayal.

West Bank protests spread over Gaza war; militants bide their time

Gargash, the Emirati adviser, said in September 2020 that after a period of “sulking,” Palestinians would eventually see the benefit of the Abraham Accords.

But they relied on the “fraught” presumption that Arab governments could normalize relations without compelling Israel to consider a political solution for the Palestinians, reversing a collective Arab pledge not to take such a step, said Zaha Hassan, a fellow at Carnegie and a Palestinian human rights lawyer. The Trump and Biden administrations took the lack of “popular uproar” in the Arab world as a sign that their reasoning was sound, she said.

A Crisis Group analysis of conditions that preceded the Oct. 7 attack said the Biden administration’s push for the accords “entailed standing by largely passively” in the face of escalating Israeli violence against Palestinians and the expansion of settlements.

“What was happening was the normalization of the suffering of the Palestinians, the normalization of an unfair situation, the normalization of occupation,” said Nancy Okail, president and chief executive of the Center for International Policy in Washington. “It was not the normalization of peaceful coexistence of Israel with other countries in the region based on fair and just terms. That’s why it was not sustainable.”

For a long time, “the region frankly did not care that much at the official level — has not cared about the Palestinian issue as they should,” Muasher said. “The gap between public and official positions has been huge.”

The recent protests, from Jordan to Morocco, have served as a “wake-up call” in the Middle East about the strength of public sympathy for the Palestinians, an Arab diplomat told The Washington Post.

“Did we expect what happened? No,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “But there was a sense of some sort of big explosion.”

Arab leaders are keenly aware that the protests, now focused on Gaza, could unleash anger over social and economic conditions in their own countries, analysts said, just over a decade after the region was shaken by the Arab Spring.

Mohammed Thair, a 33-year-old dentist who protested near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Friday, said that for years, the United States and its Western allies have been “calling for human rights.”

“They look the other way when it comes to the Palestinians,” he said. “We are not humans; we are something below,” he added. “Just numbers.”

At school in southern Lebanon, an aid stop for people fleeing conflict

The violence is already spreading beyond Gaza. Dozens have been killed in intensifying border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Attacks by Iranian-backed groups on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria have injured 24 U.S. troops, according to American military officials. And Israel has bombed airports in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

With the threat of a widening war have come increasingly dire warnings from Arab leaders, aimed in large part at Washington, Israel’s main military backer. Jordan’s Abdullah — a staunch American ally whose country has diplomatic relations with Israel — called the Israeli air campaign against Gazacruel and unconscionable at every level” at a peace summit held in Cairo over the weekend that was attended by U.S. and European officials.

He delivered some of his remarks in English, talking about the frustration of seeing the international outrage over civilian victims of “another conflict” — a reference to Ukraine — go quiet when it comes to Palestinians in Gaza.

“Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity and basic necessities would be condemned,” he said.

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, has more leverage. It controls the Rafah border crossing with Gaza and is central to any talk of creating a humanitarian corridor for fleeing Palestinians and for aid supplies to enter the enclave.

For years, Egyptian security officials have worried that Israel would one day force Gazans into northern Sinai, the so-called “three-state solution to dump the question of Palestinians onto Egypt and Jordan,” said Hanna, the Crisis Group analyst. That was seen as a distant prospect until the recent eruption.

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“Egypt is very concerned about transfer” of Palestinians into Sinai, Hanna added, “and whether transfer then becomes expulsion, whether by design or by reality.”

The conflict erupted so suddenly that events intended to showcase what some have called “the new Middle East” are now in limbo. Tickets are still on sale for a slew of sports and cultural events this fall, though the promotions now look surreal against the backdrop of wall-to-wall coverage of the war on Arabic-language channels.

A K-pop festival and a 50 Cent concert are among events in the Persian Gulf scheduled for the coming weeks, if security conditions permit. Saudi Arabia has begun welcoming bankers and financiers from around the world to a conference known as “Davos in the desert.” The UAE is set to host a U.N. climate summit in November.

But there have also been calls in the Arab world to boycott American brands, such as McDonald’s, underscoring the rising anger at the United States. Arab leaders have met that anger in recent days by demanding a solution to the crisis far removed from the Washington consensus, calling for an immediate cease-fire and an end to Israel’s blockade.

“We are saying enough is enough,” Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, told legislators this week.

“It is untenable for Israel to be given an unconditional green light and free license to kill,” he said. “Nor it is tenable to continue ignoring the reality of occupation, siege and settlement.”

Allam reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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