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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Mid-East conflict 'threat to world security'
Israeli soldiers return to armoured personnel carrier
Stoking the fires of Arab anger
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By Barnaby Mason
Diplomatic Correspondent

European leaders have issued bleak warnings that the escalating conflict between Israel and the Palestinians imperils world security.

As the European Union sent a diplomatic mission to try to mediate, UK Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain described it as the most dangerous conflict in the world, saying it could engulf the region and draw everyone in.

Israeli policeman clubs Arab Israeli protester
The mood on the Arab street is becoming more extreme
The head of the EU's executive commission, Romano Prodi, said new mediation was urgently needed before the current crisis ballooned into a regional war.

Perhaps the most immediate threat is the opening of a second front on Israel's border with Lebanon.

Clashes have broken out between Israeli forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah group around the disputed area of the Shebaa Farms.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has telephoned the Lebanese and Syrian leaders at Israel's request to warn them against being drawn in.

Resentment and indignation

Since the 1973 war, however, Syria has avoided military conflict with Israel.

More likely is a new involvement of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, less than two years after Israel finally extracted itself from a long and painful entanglement.

In general, the Arab states are too weak militarily to engage in a war with Israel.

But the growing anger on Arab streets is putting discredited governments under pressure to do something - if not to declare war, then to supply weapons to the Palestinians, or at least, in the case of Egypt and Jordan, to break off diplomatic relations.

Egypt has made a gesture in cutting some government-to-government contacts, but that will not satisfy anybody.

Jordan is more vulnerable because the majority of its population are of Palestinian origin.

And the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is feeling the heat after his efforts over the past few months to co-operate with Washington in a crackdown on suspected members of al-Qaeda.

Fury at US

American support for Israel at this moment makes the United States once more a target of popular anger.

In the words of one Arab commentator, it pushes Arab and Muslim opinion into the hands of the hardliners.

An oil embargo against the United States, advocated by Iraq, is improbable.

But the radicalisation of ordinary Arabs may increase the numbers of those willing to take part in attacks of the kind endorsed or planned by Osama Bin Laden.

In other words, many European governments think that President Bush's Middle East policy is working against his own proclaimed war on terrorism.

See also:

04 Apr 02 | Middle East
EU commits to crisis diplomacy
04 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair 'appalled' by Mid East violence
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem priest shelters Palestinians
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinian nerve centre hit
03 Apr 02 | Middle East
Egypt scales down Israel contacts
02 Apr 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Arafat under attack
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