The Associated Press
January 27, 2009 - 1:00am

At a smoky cafe in Cairo, a group of bank employees sharing a lunch of beans, falafel and pickles discussed their anger over Israel's Gaza offensive and the images of slain children and destruction they've watched on TV.

However, outrage wasn't their only feeling. In Egypt, there's also a sense of frustration with the Palestinians — and sentiment that Arabs must become more realistic in dealing with Israel.

"I have to admit I'm fed up with the Palestinian cause," said Mohammad Ahmed, one of the blue-suited bankers. "Israel isn't going anywhere. We're so used to this problem it's become like the plate of beans we eat every morning for breakfast. We're used to the fact that we have no power as Arabs. It's depressing but what else can we do."

The three-week Israeli assault against Hamas in the Gaza Strip quieted with a fragile cease-fire that was in its ninth day Tuesday. The effect of the campaign on the Arab public continues to echo and cause divisions.

Arabs have universally felt revulsion at the deaths of the nearly 1,300 Palestinians killed in the offensive, according to Palestinian health officials, which Israel launched to halt Hamas rocket fire, and many have felt helpless over their governments' inability to stop Israel.

For some, the devastation was proof that peace is not possible with Israel. In street protests during the offensive, there were calls for Arab governments to cut ties with the Jewish state — and some urged Arabs to rally behind armed militants. Some commentators have seen the outrage as a watershed moment, bringing an anti-Israel unity among the Arab public.

"We are now seeing a resurrection of a pan-Arab stand on an issue — against Israeli attacks on Gaza, against the negative attitudes of Arab regimes — something we have not seen for some time now," said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi.

But others disagree, saying the anger is just a knee-jerk reaction that will have little long-term impact.

Kuwaiti columnist Sami al-Nesef said the calls for jihad and Arab unity are reactions "we see every time" when there are Israeli offensives. "They are short-lived," said al-Nesef. "They do not represent a roadmap to dealing with Israel."

Perhaps nowhere is the reaction more complicated than in Egypt. There is anti-Israel sentiment, to be sure. But there is also nationalist resentment over the bitter criticism of Egypt from across the Arab world that it has not done enough to help Gazans. The criticism has brought back memories of condemnation Egypt faced from fellow Arabs when it became the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1979.

"We have fought wars for Palestine before and nothing came out of it," said Russell Tomoum, a 29-year-old financial auditor in Cairo.

University student Shaimaa Gad said she sees Palestinians living in her Cairo neighborhood and "they live here comfortably and have given up on their land. As a government, Egypt can't do much else. It's not just our role to play, it's the entire Middle East's."

In the 1950s and 1960s, under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt emerged as the leader of the Arab world against Israel. When his successor Anwar Sadat signed Egypt's peace deal with Israel, other Arab nations ostracized Egypt, throwing it out of the Arab League for 10 years. While some in Egypt strongly opposed the deal, many also were bitter over the Arab reaction — as one top aide to Sadat said at the time, Arab nations want to fight Israel "to the last Egyptian soldier."

Now, though, Israel complains that its peace with Egypt is a cold one and there is a widespread feeling in Egypt that there's no reversing it. During the crisis, some Egyptian opposition parties called on Cairo to suspend its ties with Israel but none talked of revoking the treaty.

"Times have past and Abdel-Nasser is dead," said Abdel Moneim Saeed, head of the Al-Ahram Center, a Cairo-based think tank. "This crisis was initiated by Hamas and we could have been dragged into a dangerous war. Egypt is the only party with a formula to end the violence."

Egypt's leaders have suggested Hamas was to blame for sparking the fighting with its rocket attacks into Israel — perhaps a reflection of the Cairo government's rivalry with the Palestinian militant group.

At the cafe, the bank employees were hesitant to blame Hamas. But Ahmed complained of the divisions among the Palestinians. "It's like we're trying to make peace between two fighting brothers," he said. "They can't even solve their own family problems, how are we as Egyptians supposed to do it for them?"

The complexities of the politics mixed with dispair over ineffectual Arab leaders and the daily struggle to get by in this impoverished country make some just want to wash their hands of the whole conflict.

Ahmed lit a cigarette and took a long drag, then blew out a plume of smoke.

"Look, we are a people who want to live," he said. "We don't have jobs or food and we just want to survive."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017