Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saudi FM criticizes Palestinians

The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; 3:37 PM

CAIRO, Egypt -- Saudi Arabia's foreign minister on Wednesday blamed Palestinian divisions for Israel's onslaught on Gaza, a reflection of U.S.-allied Arab governments' anger at the Hamas militant group.

Saud al-Faisal made the comments at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Egyptian capital, convened to try to put together a joint response by the deeply divided Arab nations to the Israeli offensive, which has killed more than 370 Palestinians and sparked outrage across the Middle East.

Pro-U.S. Arab countries _ Egypt, in particular _ have come under heavy criticism in widespread street protests, as well as from Iran, Hamas, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, for allegedly not doing enough to stop Israel or help Gazans. Officials and pro-government media in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have responded by blaming Hamas for provoking Israel and accusing the militant group of being a proxy promoting the power of regional rival Iran.

Saud's comments criticizing the Palestinians were notable because in past Israeli offensives against Arabs, Arab leaders would rarely voice anything but heavy condemnations against Israel. Saud stopped short of directly criticizing Hamas _ but it was clear from his talk of "Palestinian divisions" that his words were directed at the militant group, which took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 in a battle against loyalists of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"This terrible massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people were united behind one leadership speaking in one voice," Saud said at the league meeting's opening.

"We are telling our Palestinian brothers that your Arab nation cannot extend a real helping hand if you don't extend your own hands to each other with love," he said.

At the end of the meeting, the ministers called on Palestinians factions to put aside their differences and urged the U.N. Security Council to issue a resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire, according to a final statement.

The Mideast has largely been divided in two camps _ pro-U.S. states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan on one side, and Syria, Iran and their allied militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah on the other.

The U.S. allied camp has been concerned over growing Iranian influence _ and worry that the Persian state will gain a foothold in Gaza through Hamas, which gets financial backing from Tehran. Israel says its offensive aims to halt Hamas rocket fire into its territory.

But the popular anger over the Israeli bombardment has put the heat on Egypt and its allies. Egypt this week turned to Turkey _ a regional rival of Iran with close ties to Israel _ to put together an initiative to end the Gaza fighting.

The Arab foreign ministers reviewed the plan Wednesday. It calls for an immediate, unconditional halt to the Israeli assault, followed by a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, and international monitors to guarantee the truce and the opening of border crossings into Gaza, which Israel has kept largely sealed since 2007.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Wednesday to promote the plan. Syria's official news agency, SANA, said Erdogan and Assad called on Arab and Muslim countries to pressure Israel to end the airstrikes and warned of the "danger and consequences" a continued "aggression" would have on the region.

Later Wednesday, Erdogan moved on to pro-U.S. Jordan, where he met separately with King Abdullah II and Abbas. He travels on Thursday to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa expressed frustration with Arab and Palestinian divisions. "We are all in one boat, riddled with holes, and only our cohesion can save us," he said.

Egypt has been criticized because it has kept closed its Rafah border crossing into Gaza, the territory's only access to the outside world that does not run through Israel. Egypt says it cannot open Rafah as long as Abbas' Palestinian Authority is not in charge there, but critics accuse it of helping Israel's suffocating economic blockade. Egypt has let in some humanitarian supplies since the Israeli offensive began Saturday.

Late Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah renewed his pressure on Egypt. "We still demand that Arab rulers and Arab people urge the Egyptian government to open the Rafah crossing," he said, addressing crowds at a rally south of Beirut through a large screen from an unknown location.


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