Most Arabs helpless onlookers in Gaza standoff

BEIRUT — This time there are no angry protests in Arab streets or recalls of diplomats — only a low-key bid to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

A widening Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip to secure the release of a captured soldier has exposed a sense of helplessness among Arab governments and ordinary people alike.

Most Arab governments have done little more than issue standard condemnations of the Israeli airstrikes on targets in Gaza and the tightening blockade of its 1.3 million residents.

“The scandal, as usual, is in the stand of the Arab countries… who look away from what is happening to the Palestinian people in their homeland,” Talal Salman, editor and owner of Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, wrote on Friday. “They [the Arabs] don’t have an answer. They don’t have much choice,” analyst Abdel-Monem Said, of Egypt’s Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Reuters. The only sign of Arab engagement has been Egypt’s mediation efforts, which seemed to be a factor in holding Israel back from a ground offensive into northern Gaza.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the Hamas Islamist group had given “conditional approval” for the release of the soldier, who was captured in a cross-border raid on Sunday.

The factions that captured the soldier, which include the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement, are demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners even for information on whether the 19-year-old is dead or alive.

“Most of what we are seeing right now is a repercussion of Hamas winning the Palestinian elections [in January], which narrowed very much the choices available to Arab countries in terms of mediating the relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Said said.

Mohammed Ameer, an editor at Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh newspaper, said part of the problem was that Hamas did not share the vision of most Arab countries on peacemaking with Israel.

“Everybody is busy with his own problems,” he said. “The Arab governments were embarrassed in the first place when Hamas came to power.” Many voices in the Arab press complained of Western double standards and were sceptical of Israel’s intentions.

“Those in the West run to help an imprisoned soldier who is armed from head to toe, but they run into their holes when rockets and planes bombard the homes of innocents, killing defenceless babies,” an editorial in the United Arab Emirates Khaleej newspaper said.

“They are hypocrites and we must amend our policies to reflect that if this conflict is ever to end.” The only large protest was at Jordan’s Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp where hundreds of protesters slammed Arab governments for their lack of action.

“Where are the Arab governments’ armies…? They are there to terrorise their peoples,” the crowd chanted.

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