Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
December 31, 2008 - 1:00am

Arab countries appeared deeply divided on Wednesday over how to respond to the latest escalation in fighting between Israel and Hamas, with sharply differing comments from foreign ministers at the opening of an emergency Arab League meeting here.

Moderate Arab states generally allied to the United States blamed Palestinian disunity for the crisis and more radical states, some of whom did not attend, urged collective action to defend the Palestinians against Israel.

In the most striking comments, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, criticized the Palestinians for their inability to remain united behind President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah — an implicit condemnation of Hamas, which took over Gaza entirely in 2007 in a brief but violent civil war with Fatah. Normally, during periods of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Arab leaders only condemn Israel.

“This terrible massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people were united behind one leadership, speaking in one voice,” Prince 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.

The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, also expressed frustration with Arab and Palestinian divisions, saying their weakness has “led to this disregard of the Arabs” internationally. “We are all in one boat, riddled with holes, and only our cohesion can save us,” he said.

Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, has made similar criticisms, and he has essentially told Arab nations that want Egypt to come to the defense of Hamas — and Iran — to mind their own business. Hamas is a branch of Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and Mr. Mubarak has to walk a fine line between supporting the Palestinians and not coming to the aid of Hamas, which gets significant aid from Tehran.

The state-controlled Egyptian media have blamed Hamas for refusing to renew a six-month cease-fire with Israel and being the main cause of the current violence, for which it also condemns Israel. Egypt has made regular efforts to pull the Palestinian factions into unity talks and to be an intermediary between Israel and Hamas.

Countries like Egypt and Jordan, which maintain close but complicated ties with the United States and have recognized Israel, have come under fierce criticism by the leaders of Syria, Libya and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon for not doing enough to help the Gazans. There have been some street protests, including one today in Cairo, in an area where demonstrations are tolerated, but which produced some fighting between Islamist protestors and riot police.

Some protesters held up copies of the Koran and shouted: “On Gaza we will march, martyrs by the millions, we are all Hamas.” Others chanted: “Rule by the Koran.”

The Arab League is trying to put together an initiative to help end the fighting in Gaza and restore the cease-fire, and Egypt has asked the aid of Turkey, which has close ties to Israel.

The Arab League foreign ministers discussed the plan, which calls for an immediate, unconditional halt to the fighting, 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.


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