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Deepening Israeli assault on Hamas divides Arab world

Israeli forces struck two United Nations schools in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing at least 34 people, as international call for an immediate cease-fire grew.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2009

Protests: Lebanese students on Tuesday rallied against the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Bilal Hussein/AP

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Beirut, Lebanon

Israel pressed deeper into Gaza Tuesday in its assault on Hamas. As the battle grew deadlier, calls for a cease-fire mounted as did outrage at Israel after two strikes outside United Nations schools killed at least 34 Gaza civilians.

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Across the Arab world the conflict continues to tear at the rift between factions that extol resistance to Israel and the Western-friendly autocracies and monarchies that rule in the region. As anger at Israel grows, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas backers in Iran and Syria gain more currency on the street at the expense of American allies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. And this shifting tide of support could have an impact on US policy in the Middle East for decades.

"This conflict, like the July [2006 Hezbollah-Israel] war, is one in which the stakes are very high for both sides," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. "I would expect now an even-deeper polarization in the region."

As with the 2006 Lebanon war, the Gaza conflict suggests that the most dynamic forces at play in the modern Middle East are not states but the powerful militant organizations – Hezbollah and Hamas – that have emerged and evolved over the past two decades.

"These are very powerful, legitimate, and perplexing actors for the world to deal with. The really important actors are the militant nationalist, Islamist resistance groups," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center of Lebanon at the American University of Beirut.

These divisions between anti-Israeli factions and US allies were first thrown into sharp relief in July 2006 when Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a surprising standstill in south Lebanon. At the onset of that conflict, Saudi Arabia implicitly accused Hezbollah and its backer Iran of "uncalculated adventures," an unusually stinging rebuke.

But in this war between Israel and an Islamist militant group, the verbal barbs have been sharper. The Saudis, while providing humanitarian aid to Gazans, have implicitly blamed Hamas for the offensive, saying that the "massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people were united behind one leadership."

On the other side, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah charged the Sunni Egyptian regime of conspiring with Israel and urged Egyptians "to take the streets in their millions."

"Can the Egyptian police kill millions of Egyptians? No, they cannot," he said.

This was an unprecedented call from the politically astute leader who has always been wary of aggravating Sunni-Shiite tensions.

"The gloves have come off and Hezbollah is no longer afraid of antagonizing the Sunnis," says Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul-Gheit shot back at Sheikh Nasrallah, saying that Hezbollah had destroyed Lebanon in 2006 and accused him of having "insulted the Egyptian people."

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