Fury in Arab streets

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, seen on a giant screen, speaks in a Beirut suburb on January 7, Ashoura day, vowing to crush any Israeli offensive against Lebanon. Ashoura day marks the A.D. 680 battle in which Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was killed.-BILAL HUSSEIN/AP

Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, seen on a giant screen, speaks in a Beirut suburb on January 7, Ashoura day, vowing to crush any Israeli offensive against Lebanon. Ashoura day marks the A.D. 680 battle in which Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was killed.-BILAL HUSSEIN/AP

FROM Ramallah to Rabat, Cairo to Istanbul, Arab streets have erupted in a wave of protests against the Israeli military offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza. The Arab people have also come out in support of Hamas, which has continued to defy the Israeli military.

Much of the fury has been directed at Egypt, traditionally the Arab worlds most influential player and a one-time supporter of the Palestinian cause. Public opinion in the region was inflamed by the statements made by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a press conference in Cairo blaming Hamas for the Israeli attack. Hamas refused to renew the Egyptian-brokered six-month ceasefire with Israel, which ended on December 19. During those six months, Gaza was virtually sealed off with the six border crossing points with Israel and the gate on the Rafah border with Egypt in the south remaining closed, thereby denying the residents access to essential supplies. The street protesters considered the failure of top Arab leaders to pin the responsibility for the catastrophe facing Gaza on Israel as a case of treachery against the Arab nation.

Some of the players who have given a political direction to the raw anger are the leadership of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Hizbollah in Lebanon, especially its leader Hassan Nasrallah; Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The response to the attacks on Gaza follows a quiet geopolitical realignment that the region has been witnessing in recent years. The change can be traced to the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran. In view of its oil wealth, rich civilisational history and a Shia clerical network that crosses national boundaries in the region, revolutionary Iran had the potential to challenge the regional order enforced by the United States and Israel. Consequently, there began a concerted effort, backed by the U.S., to dislodge the Iranian revolution. In 1980, Iraq, encouraged by the U.S., invaded Iran and engaged it in a bitter war for eight years. This failed to upstage the revolution.

The survival of the Iranian regime has never been threatened by the economic measures, including sanctions, that Washington and its allies have imposed on Teheran. On the contrary, Iran, with measured deliberation, began to expand its influence in the region. Through its Shia network, it became a firm supporter of the Hizbollah, which, with its stronghold in south Lebanon, was positioned along the frontline facing Israel. Iran became the most influential player in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country. Iran developed close relations with a wide section of Iraqs Shia leadership, which had sought refuge in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Consequently, the Shia ascendancy in Iraq, following the U.S. invasion, leveraged Irans political profile in Iraq. The free flow of Iranian pilgrims to Iraqi spiritual hubs such as Najaf and Karbala and the close ties between the seminary networks in Qom (Iran) and Najaf have added new dimensions to this complex relationship.

Over the years, Iran became a staunch ally of Syria, the last holdout of Baathist ideology and Arab nationalism. Like Iran, Syria has been facing a serious security threat from the U.S.-Israeli combine. Damascus had given shelter to top Hamas leaders, including its present head, Khalid Meshal.

While Hamas presence in Syria and Lebanon facilitated contacts, it would be erroneous to assume that Hamas has taken orders or has sourced its weapons from Teheran. Iran does share some of its revolutionary ideals with Hamas and sympathises with the Palestinian cause. It has a common interest in the liberation of the region from the U.S.-Israel orbit of influence. However, facts of geography deny Iran the capability to influence the battlefield in Gaza. Israel and Egypt have hermetically sealed Gaza, allowing little chance of large-scale transfer of Iranian weaponry or personnel, for the purpose of training, into the coastal strip.

The flawed argument that Hamas and Hizbollah are Iranian proxies is frequently used by Israel to ensure that it continues to receive Western material and diplomatic support. By raising the Iranian bogey, Israel puts itself in a position to deflect a debate on the genuine aspirations of Palestinians and the indigenous mechanisms of support that they have managed to develop against all odds.

The 34-day war between Israel and Hizbollah in July-August 2006 had far-reaching implications for the region. By effectively repulsing Israeli attacks in south Lebanon, Hizbollah introduced a new counter-dynamic in West Asia. Its success bolstered the morale of resistance movements in the region, including in Gaza and Iraq. Hizbollahs tactic of using rockets to hit Israel, followed in that war, is now emulated by Hamas.

With large parts of West Asia Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran already out of its grasp, it is not surprising that Israel has lost all sense of proportion in trying to bludgeon Gaza into submission. To the Israeli establishment, it is obvious that if Gaza manages to survive its onslaught, it is bound to encourage resistance among Palestinian people in the West Bank. Palestinian refugee camps spread across the region could also become centres of rebellion. Gazas resilience is bound to encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to make the strip of land a rear base for its operations, imparting a strategic depth to it.

The resistance mounted by Hamas on Egypts Sinai border could put enormous pressure on the pro-Western Mubarak regime. Aware of the threat, Mubarak told a visiting European delegation that Hamas should not be allowed to emerge from the present conflict with the upper hand.

So it is not surprising that Egypt has become the main target of attacks in the ongoing demonstrations across West Asia. For those resisting the influence of the U.S.-Israeli combine, including Gaza, Egyptian neutrality, if not support, would be vital for durable success.

It is, therefore, not coincidental that one of the first major salvos against the Egyptian leadership was fired from Beirut by Hizbollah. On the night of December 28, Nasrallah explained in a televised address the context of the Israeli air strikes. He said that there is a U.S.-Israeli scheme in the region and they want to impose humiliating conditions on the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria after Egypt and Jordan made so-called peace agreements with Israel.

Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel. The Hizbollah chief stressed that some Arab regimes were partners in this conspiracy: It is not true that there is Arab silence; there is real and complete partnership in this, particularly the sides that signed agreements with Israel. They are working today on preparing the circumstances for the surrender of the resistance engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the Egyptian regime. The Elaph news website posted a comment by a Brotherhood leader, Isam al-Aryan, who described the official Egyptian position on Gaza as a condemned and disgraceful stance and a shame for every Egyptian. He added: The same applies to the Arab position. This is because the Arabs have used Egypt as a scapegoat and are blaming it for what is happening, thus forgetting about the key conspirators in Washington, Paris, and London.

Another Brotherhood leader, Muhammad Habib, explained on the same website that Egypt must undertake diplomatic, political and economic measures to discourage Israel from attacking Palestinians. What is taking place on the ground is a real threat to Egyptian and Arab national security. Accordingly, it is Egypts duty towards Gaza to take swift actions to end these massacres by lifting the siege and opening the Rafah crossing on a permanent basis, in addition to banning oil vessels from transiting the Suez Canal. The London-based Palestinian daily Al Quds Al Arabi stressed that Egypt should cut off gas supplies to Israel in protest against the Gaza strikes.

For the thousandth time we say that Egypt is not required to wage war but to pull out the Egyptian ambassador and oust the Israeli ambassador from Cairo. Before all that, it should stop the export of the gas that is used to burn Palestinian children. This is the language that Israel understands, and these are the measures alongside the opening of the Rafah crossing which will save the image of the regime abroad and contain the raging anger domestically, the daily observed.

Habib said that the Muslim Brotherhood saw the Gaza attack as part of a larger plot to subdue Arabs in the region. To Muslim Brotherhood members, the Palestinian people, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza, represent the preventive wall and the first line of defence in confronting the U.S.-Zionist plan, which aims to bring the [Arab] nation to its knees, dissolve its identity, destroy its will, plunder its wealth, and undermine its cultural individuality. He added that the residents of Gaza are not defending only their land, holy places, and are not defending only their right to a free and respectable life. Rather, they are defending the nations dignity and honour.

In one of his addresses, Nasrallah alerted his followers about the possibility of a larger U.S.-Israeli design of not only targeting Gaza but also Lebanon. However, he stressed that any Israeli attack on Lebanon would boomerang badly: [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert told [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy: today Hamas and tomorrow Hizbollah. I tell the defeated and failing Olmert that you will not succeed in crushing Hamas in Gaza or Hizbollah in Lebanon. One says theyll destroy us within days, others say that within hours and I say: We are not afraid of your planes or your threats, and we are ready for any aggression. If they come to our towns and homes, the Zionists will discover that their war in July 2006 was a picnic compared to what we have prepared for them.

The Hizbollah leader also added that the U.S. and Israel were aiming to snuff out the idea of an independent Palestinian state. He pointed out that former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, had already revealed Washingtons goals in Palestine. What we heard from Bolton clearly indicates the real aim of the U.S. and Israel is to end the Palestinian issue by concretising the state of Israel, giving Gaza to Egypt and giving the rest to Jordan.

The protests following the Gaza attacks have raised another major issue. There is a growing body of opinion in West Asia that the peace process based on the Oslo accords and developed during the course of the Annapolis conference of November 2007 has become irrelevant.

Condemning the Oslo accords and the Annapolis negotiations, Al-Aryan of the Muslim Brotherhood observed that resistance alone is capable of restoring stolen rights. Nasrallah, on his part, said that Hamas capacity to counter the Israeli army confirms that the choice of armed resistance based on faith and determination is the best and most effective way to confront the most tyrannical armies in this world. Referring to the Israeli attack on a U.N.-run school in Gaza in which more than 40 people were killed, he observed that it was futile to pin hopes on the international community, which, he said was incapable of condemning a massacre in a U.N. institution in Gaza.

Among the major countries responding to the Gaza strikes, Turkey, known for its close ties with Israel in the past, has emerged as a surprise package. Erdogan did not mince words in condemning Israel. Speaking in Antalya to a domestic audience, he said that Israel was perpetrating inhuman actions that would lead to its destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents, he said.

Erdogan has been engaged in hectic diplomacy to bring about a durable ceasefire agreement. His exertions to find a solution have taken him to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Turkey has said that it will convey Hamas conditions for ceasefire to the U.N. body.

The protests across West Asia have had their impact. Egypt and some of the pro-U.S. Arab states are under pressure to change from resurgent liberation movements and their supporters such as Syria and Iran, and Turkey, which is possibly engaged in redefining its role in the region.

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