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Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 10:19 GMT
Arab rulers cool on Intifada
A Palestinian youth pelts Israeli soldiers with stones
Clashes erupt throughout the West Bank
By Frank Gardner in Cairo

The Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, has so far resulted in three months of Arab-Israeli bloodshed and more than 350 deaths.

It has also triggered a wave of moral and material support from the rest of the Arab world.

A billion dollar fund has been pledged to help the Palestinians, but only a fraction of it is has been handed over. Many Arabs feel their leaders have done less to help the Palestinians than they would like.

When news of the Intifada spread to Cairo three months ago, Egyptians rallied in their thousands to protest at the killing of their fellow Arabs, the Palestinians, by Israeli soldiers.

Relations with Israel... are part of the most important goal of the Arab world

Zvi Mazel, Israel's ambassador to Egypt

"Egypt is the strongest country in the world," said a student demonstrating outside a mosque. "We won't let Israel get away with what it's doing."

Many young Egyptians have even called for all-out war with Israel, forgetting that it has nuclear weapons and they don't. But the Egyptian government has ruled that out.

Diplomatic ties

Egypt and Jordan have both defied popular Arab opinion. Although neither country now has an ambassador in Tel Aviv, they have both refused to cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

Other Arab states - Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Oman - have all closed down their low-level links with Israel since the Intifada began.

Israel's ambassador to Cairo, Zvi Mazel, thinks that if Egypt and Jordan do the same, it will backfire on the Arabs.

Israeli border police officers
Arab leaders want to avoid conflict with the Israelis
"If something really bad happens and there is a resolution to break relations, it will mean going 20 years backwards," he said.

"I think that relations with Israel, co-operation and access to technology are part of the ultimate and most important goal of the Arab world."

The Arabs would strongly disagree with that view. They've always been suspicious of Israeli economic power. Now most of them want nothing to do with Israel at all.

In fact, they expect their governments to do more to help the Palestinians than just sending food and medical aid.

American influence

Abdel Bari Atwan, the Palestinian editor of the London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, believes Arab leaders have their own reasons for confronting Israel in words, not deeds.

"These leaders are fully dependent on the United States, fully dependent on the West in general," he asserted.

"So they would like to stay away from conflict unless they are forced into it."


The Israelis just don't understand the word peace as we understand it

Nabil Sawalha Playwright
When Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak convened an emergency Arab summit in October, there was strong condemnation of Israel, but almost no practical measures - to the relief of the Americans.

The same happened in November at an Islamic summit in Qatar. For all their bold statements, the Arab and Islamic summits ended with harmless closing announcements. The Arab world cried betrayal.

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, a popular play has been ridiculing Arab rulers. It shows the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat calling for an end to the uprising, while telling his people to ignore his instructions.

Nabil Sawalha wrote the play in just three weeks. His views are typical of many in the Arab world.

Yasser Arafat
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met other Arab leaders in Cairo in October
"The more than absurd and ridiculous politicians around the Intifada are flapping and fluttering, hoping that they will suck away the anger from the realism of the Intifada, which could infect everybody," he said.

"The Israelis just don't understand the word peace as we understand it."

So where does all this leave the Intifada? To fend for itself, is the answer.

Most Arab leaders have shown that they're not prepared to go to war again for the Palestinians.

Arab anger

But the huge displays of anti-Israeli anger on Arab streets have worried some governments. The Palestinian politician Dr Hanan Ashrawi believes the Intifada has empowered the Arab populations.

"Now there is a feeling that Arab public opinion cannot be taken for granted by the West any more," he said.

"The Intifada can, in a sense, be a force not only for destabilising the region, but also for integrating a sense of democracy and accountability."

Both appear to be in short supply in the Arab world, and the Intifada has yet to run its course.

If Palestinians continue to die in large numbers, Arab rulers maybe pressured by their people into embarking on a new and dangerous path.

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See also:

24 Dec 00 | Middle East
Mid-East faces 'moment of truth'
18 Dec 00 | Middle East
Q&A: Crisis in the Middle East
08 Dec 00 | Middle East
Intifada: Then and now
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