Arab states must repudiate ties with Israel now

Palestinians demonstrate in the West Bank town of Ramallah against the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, 30 July 2006. An Israeli air strike on Qana killed more than 54 people, 37 of them children, in south Lebanon. (MaanImages/Mushir Abdelrahman)

The scenes of carnage from Qana, where ten years after an almost identical massacre, rescue workers are pulling the broken bodies of children from the rubble, break the heart and generate a deep and boiling anger. But it is not enough to point the finger at Israel’s war criminal government which carried out the atrocity, nor the United States administration, which encourages Israel, funds and arms it. We must also demand that all those with the power to act do so immediately.

Over the past two decades, “moderate” (pro-American) Arab governments including Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Oman have established ties with Israel, their public rationale being that integrating Israel into the region and normalizing it will encourage moderation on Israel’s part. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have formal agreements with Israel; the other states various official and unofficial ties. At the 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut, Arab governments unanimously reached out to Israel offering full peace in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal only from the territories Israel occupied in 1967, allowing it to maintain its hold on all the land Zionist militias seized from the Palestinians whom they ethnically cleansed in 1947-48. Israel is giving its answer to the Beirut offer by destroying Beirut and all of Lebanon.

Israel has rejected all Arab peace initiatives, no matter how far-reaching and generous, in favor of continued colonial expansion and occupation. It has taken these peace moves as signs of Arab weakness and as a license for further aggression. The Israeli public (except for Palestinian citizens of Israel) almost unanimously supports Israel’s massacres in Lebanon and Palestine, and until Israelis start to feel there is a price in terms of international isolation, we cannot expect that to change. And as long as Israeli colonialism remains unchallenged by supine governments, millions of people will see ‘non-state actors’ like Hizbullah and Hamas as their best option to protect their most fundamental interests, and the power and popularity of such groups will grow as governments consign themselves to irrelevance. Israel and its allies need to ask themselves why demonstrators are shouting the name of Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah from Cairo to Ramallah to Doha, and stop deluding themselves that millions of people are merely puppets of some Syrian-Iranian conspiracy.

Arab states must publicly break their ties with Israel, not merely as an expression of the overwhelming outrage and grief of their own citizens, but as a strategic message to Israel that it will face total and permanent isolation if it does not change course. Arab governments should also support the growing global civil society campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Days after Israel began its premeditated rampage in Lebanon, using the July 12 Hizbullah operation against Israeli military forces on the border as a pretext, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia condemned the Israeli actions. But what attracted attention was their apparent laying of the blame at Hizbullah’s doorstep. Egypt and Jordan issued a joint statement on July 14 warning against “the region being dragged into ‘adventurism’ that does not serve Arab interests.” Just the day before, a Saudi official had used the same word when he told the SPA news agency that, “It is necessary to make a distinction between legitimate resistance (to occupation) and irresponsible adventurism adopted by certain elements within the state.”

The common interpretation both in the Arab and western media was that these three US-allied governments had implicitly joined up with the American-Israeli axis to take on “radical” and popular forces in the region, specifically Hizbullah and Hamas, that resist Israeli colonialism. The Washington Post, citing “senior Israeli and U.S. officials” reported on July 16 that, “Israel, with U.S. support, intends to resist calls for a cease-fire and continue a longer-term strategy of punishing Hezbollah, which is likely to include several weeks of precision bombing in Lebanon.” The same report stated that, “Whatever the outrage on the Arab streets, Washington believes it has strong behind-the-scenes support among key Arab leaders also nervous about the populist militants — with a tacit agreement that the timing is right to strike.” (“Strikes Are Called Part of Broad Strategy; U.S., Israel Aim to Weaken Hezbollah, Region’s Militants,” The Washington Post, 16 July 2006).

Yet as Israel failed to achieve the quick victory that its generals promised, and as Hizbullah fought stubbornly and skillfully, gaining support and respect from every corner of the region, calculations started to change rapidly. The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia and Jordan which “were initially more worried about the rising power of Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, are scrambling to distance themselves from Washington.” (“Tide of Arab Opinion Turns to Support for Hezbollah,” The New York Times, 28 July 2006)

Saudi Arabia hurriedly announced a $1.5 billion aid package to help rebuild Lebanon and Jordan made a public show of sending humanitarian aid. But the damage was already done. “Tent after green tent stands just off one of Beirut’s fashionable shopping areas, part of a field hospital sent by Jordan to treat Lebanese wounded,” Reuters reported on July 28. “Jordanian soldiers sit idly in the shade nearby and a peek into one tent reveals the beds are empty. Lebanese casualties are rejecting aid from Jordan in protest at what they view as its failure to press for an end to Israeli air strikes in the 17-day-old war against Hizbollah.” A Lebanese worker near the field hospital stated, “They’ve been here three days and we have seen no casualties treated here… They cannot give the green light for this strike against us and then show up to treat us. We don’t want their sweetness or their bitterness.” (“Lebanese wounded turn cold shoulder on Jordan aid,” Reuters, 28 July 2006)

Hours after the Qana massacre, Jordan’s King Abdullah II released a statement which “strongly condemned the ugly crime of the Israeli forces in Qana” The statement reiterated Jordan’s calls for “an immediate ceasefire.”

Such statements are welcome and necessary but unlikely to be sufficient. Israel, as it has shown time and again, is not swayed by words. On the contrary, it deliberately twists and misinterprets them whether from friend or foe. Following the failure of last week’s Rome summit Israel claimed it had a “green light” from all the participating states to continue bombing Lebanon. (Although Israel certainly does have a green light from the United States, which is rushing more bombs to kill Lebanese civilians to Israel, this public boasting by Israel was embarassing enough to the U.S. that State Department spokesman Adam Ereli termed it “outrageous.”)

Arab states must end their long forbearance which sends the message to Israel that the lives of their citizens are cheap. Action is required no less for the best interests and domestic and international standing of these governments as for the region as a whole. In Jordan’s case it would only be exercising rights and responsibilities that are contained within its 1994 peace treaty with Israel and thus could not even be interpreted as violating the treaty’s spirit or letter. The peace treaty was supposed to be one element in a wider regional peace that has failed to materialize due to Israel’s aggressive construction of new colonies on occupied Palestinian land and refusal to withdraw from occupied Lebanese and Syrian territory. The preamble to the treaty states that Israel and Jordan aim at “a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 in all their aspects.” In Article 2 of the treaty, both states commit themselves to “respect and recognize the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the region.”

Israel’s continued and deepening occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territory, violations of their sovereignty, blatant interference in the internal affairs of Palestinians and Lebanese, and its mounting atrocities which have claimed Jordanian and Egpytian as well as thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian lives are not only crimes against humanity but violations of Israel’s treaty commitments. Jordan and Egypt have a right and obligation to respond.

Arab governments have a slim chance to play a genuine leadership role and prove that their earlier positions were simply being misinterpreted and exploited. Breaking off relations may seem like a small step in the current circumstances, but it is the minimum they must do and it will set an example for other international actors such as the EU and the UN who have also failed in their international responsibilities, siding with the aggressor against the victim and thereby enabling Israel’s unspeakable crimes.

After Qana, Jordan’s foreign minister Abul-Ilah al-Khatib urged the international community “take a firm stand against the aggression.” Amman and Cairo should lead the way with more than words.

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Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.”