Powell faces changed Arab world

Israel suffered its biggest military loss of the current intifada Tuesday, as Powell met with Egypt's president.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed Arab leaders to help quell Palestinian suicide attacks, a newly militant Arab world looks prepared – short of a complete Israeli pullout from the West Bank – to rebuff US diplomatic efforts.

The Middle East has changed from what it was even in late February of 2001, when Mr. Powell embarked upon his first overseas mission as a new and ambitious US Secretary of State. That was a time when he could still expect warm smiles and offers of unstinting support from moderate Arab states.

But in Egypt yesterday, and in Morocco on Monday, Powell discovered just how much Arab opinion has shifted. And, in response, he is making some adjustments to his official positions on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

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In Morocco on Monday, Mr. Powell described his own mission as one meant to persuade moderate Arab leaders to publicly condemn suicide bombings and other militant activities against Israelis. But King Mohammed VI stunned some observers by ask- ing Powell: "Don't you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?"

Powell will make five stops for discussions with Arab and European leaders before arriving in Israel the end of this week.

In Egypt yesterday, the reception was less severe, but far from warm. Protesters at the al-Azhar Islamic university burned Israeli and US flags ahead of Powell's visit, chanting "burn, burn the flag of America."

Powell emerged from a meeting with Egytian President Hosni Mubarak, saying he would meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat later this week. The US had been hesitant to commit to a meeting with Mr. Arafat in the week leading up to yesterday. He added: "I think that it is up to all of us to recognize that the suicide bombings – all of this has to be brought to an end. I would ask all the leaders of the Arab nations and the Palestinian nation to say to their people that this is the time to stop this kind of activity."

In Israel, new violence gave urgency to Powell's mission. While Israel pulled out of some areas in the West Bank yesterday, in partial accordance with US wishes for a complete withdrawal, Palestinian sources claimed that new incursions had been made as intense fighting continued in several areas. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed and nine wounded in fighting in the Jenin Refugee Camp, according to an army spokesman. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in battles inside Jenin over the past week.

Meanwhile in the Arab world, there is a growing disenchantment with how the Palestinians are being treated. Government-appointed clerics in Egypt, who hold great sway here, have pointedly reversed their position toward Palestinian-led suicide attacks against Israeli targets in recent days.

"The whole region is far more militant than it was," says Hala Mustafa, a political and social analyst with the Al Ahram Newspaper Group in Egypt. "Religion, as never before, is playing the main role in mobilizing people – both Palestinians and their Arab neighbors."

One of the slogans being chanted by Egyptian protesters angry at Israeli military incursions into the West Bank is particularly disturbing, says Ms. Mustafa. "The demonstrators are shouting that 'Israel is the enemy of God!' – a slogan very popular with Algerian extremist groups" that have enmeshed that country in a bloody civil war.

"And because there is no real Arab army as such, Arab youth and demonstrators feel that they have no other way except to fight back through militant groups," she says. "In Syria, the population supports Hizbullah; and in Palestine, they support groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

Mustafa says even Arab women have become more militant in the past year. "The ones you see in the streets are not acting in a modern way," she says. "They are covering their heads with veils."

For them, Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian woman to attack inside Israel on Jan. 27, is a new heroine.

Though hard-line states like Syria and Iraq have rarely concealed their support for suicide strikes against Israel, even moderate Arab leaders are now implicitly backing what the US government defines as "terror" – suicide bombings by the Palestinians. The attacks are seen as a quid pro quo meant to bring about an Israeli pullout.

Egypt's government has called on its top religious leaders to explain the new militant stance, as they claim the government hasn't changed its position. "Our official stance against these attacks has not changed," says presidential spokesman Nabil Osman. "To put civilians in harm's way – either Palestinians or Israelis – is definitely the wrong policy. But we must look at the root causes of such attacks. If there was no occupation, we would not be talking about suicide bombing."

Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, a deputy of the grand imam of Al Azhar, the mosque-university that is the highest center of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world, starts by defining "jihad," or holy war, versus what he calls "terror." (See story, below.)

"Terror is when you threaten people who live in security, and usurp the rights of others," he says, sitting in his spacious office that provides guidance to Egypt's well off and poor alike. "Jihad is when people resist those who usurp their territory. The prophet Muhammad says that those killed without their land, money, or honor are true martyrs."

Sheikh Ashour insists that it is Israel that has "breached all Islamic and Christian values." He justifies the Egyptian religious establishment's new support for the suicide attacks, which he refers to as "self-sacrifice" as a means to an end.

The man he works for, Sheikh Al-Azhar Muhammed Sayyid Tantawi, had until recently ruled that all attacks on civilians were forbidden.

This stance had been backed by the most senior cleric in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Alash-Sheikh, who ruled that most of the attacks are suicidal in nature – with suicide being explicitly forbidden by Islam.

"If it will lead to the end that Israel will acknowledge the peace and human rights of the Palestinians that they have usurped, the attacks are justified," he explains. "As soon as the US forces the Israelis out of the occupied territories, we will be committed to peace again. But let the Israelis commit first to peace, and we will follow suit."

Cleric signals shift toward harder line in moderate Egypt

Egypt's top religious adviser, Mufti Ahmed al-Tayyeb, has called Palestinian suicide bombers "martyrs of the highest order."

The mufti's remarks, along with similar statements given by Egypt's other top cleric, Sheikh al-Azhar, suggest a new institutional and religious stance from within moderate Egypt, which has previously condemned suicide attacks on civilian targets.

In an interview with the Monitor, Mufti Ahmed al-Tayyeb – newly-appointed this year to his influential post by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – defended the acts of Palestinian bombers as heroic deeds that express the Islamic idea of jihad, or holy war.

The mufti called it the right of Palestinians to attack civilians, pointing out that all Israelis – women, men and children – are considered part of an "occupying force."

In February, a slightly more moderate stance had been taken by Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque and university, who was quoted by Egypt's Middle East News Agency as saying that the bombers were defending their people's dignity, but that they should not intentionally target the weak.

The mufti explained the Palestinian attacks in the context of an overall defensive strategy, which he said the Muslim world supported. "The Palestinians have a plan and a vision to defend themselves and we believe in this plan," said Mr. al-Tayyeb, who was surrounded by several prominent government advisers as he spoke. "The faithful are being martyred to force the Zionist occupiers to reconsider their plans."

Some political analysts in Egypt have warned that the mufti's new stance could inflame youthful passions across the country, which is already fertile recruiting ground for international terror organizations, including Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

Asked if he did not consider the suicide attacks against Israelis to be in any way similar to the suicide strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, the mufti insisted that there was absolutely no comparison to be made. He charged that Mr. bin Laden's attacks against the United States were now being exploited by Ariel Sharon as an excuse to rampage through the West Bank in a so-called war against terror.

"What happened in the United States is terrorism, what is happening here is not the same," he insisted.

The mufti described Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli targets as a last means of defense for a defenseless and humiliated people. He asked: "If the Germans invaded London, wouldn't the British people support the idea of self-sacrifice?"

He also downplayed the possibility that such attacks would spread beyond Israel and the occupied territories, since there were, in his words, "no Arab leaders at war with their own people."

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