Mideast conflict fuels global anger

Protests at the US Embassy in Lebanon yesterday follow anti-Jewish attacks in Europe.

The bitter winds of hatred are blowing out of the Middle East into Europe, and as far away as Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The continuing battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian forces sparked violence against Jewish targets in France and Belgium, as well as a wave of protests outside US and Israeli Embassies worldwide.

Israel's assault on the Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is threatening to provoke wider unrest in the Middle East, and has unsettled world markets that are nervous about world oil supplies.

In three separate initiatives, diplomats are frantically gathering in Luxembourg, New York, and Cairo to find a way prevent the conflict from widening.

European Union foreign ministers held an emergency meeting Wednesday evening to urge Israel to abide by a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Israel's withdrawal from the Palestinian areas it has occupied. It was the first such gathering since just after Sept. 11, underscoring the depth of European fears about the dangers of the current situation.

"It is clear [that American] mediation efforts have failed and we need new mediation" European Commission President Romano Prodi told reporters in Brussels yesterday. Arab foreign ministers are also gathering in Cairo for an emergency meeting Saturday, and the UN Security Council met in New York yesterday.

There are no signs yet, however, that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is ready to heed rising international pressure to call off his attack on Palestinian controlled towns in the West Bank, which he says is aimed at rooting out terrorists.

The violence has spilled over this week into Europe, where Jewish synagogues, a kosher butcher, and other Jewish targets have been attacked in the worst spate of anti-Semitic assaults for years.

On Tuesday, in Berlin, a group of dark-skinned men beat up two Americans after determining that they were Jews. In the southern French city of Marseille, a synagogue was burned to the ground, and Jewish prayer halls were fire bombed in two other French towns and in Belgium.

Also in southern France, a kosher butcher's shop was sprayed with gunfire.

"Anti-Semitic attacks used to be spontaneous, now they are structured, organized by people of an Islamist tendency," says Patrick Klugman, president of the French Jewish Student Union. "A radical hard core of Islamists are sending a message to their constituency, that they can attack anyone anywhere, and they are using what's happening in the Middle East as an alibi."

Attacks on Jews in Europe, once the preserve of extreme right wing groups, are now more often carried out by young, unemployed men from poor suburbs where immigrant families from North Africa are concentrated, according to Malek Boutih, head of 'SOS Racism', a French anti-racist organization.

"Events in the Middle East set something off in their heads," Mr.Boutih says. "They use what's happening to dress up anti-Semitic acts."

Government officials have reacted angrily to the violence. "There can be differences about how to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but there can be no question of racism, anti-Semitism or fanaticism," Belgian Secretary of State for Development Eddy Boutmans said in a statement. The French authorities have detailed 1,100 extra policemen to guard Jewish sites.

Elsewhere in Europe, pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside US or Israeli embassies in Athens, Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Rome.

Arab governments pressured

In the Arab world, Yasser Arafat is becoming an potent symbol of resolve, while inflamed public opinion is narrowing the options open to regional leaders. Arab leaders, too, are increasingly frustrated by their own inability – and the US government's apparent unwillingness – to rein in Mr. Sharon.

In Cairo, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak earlier this week allowed unprecedented freedom to demonstrators who marched on the Israeli Embassy to demand that Egypt break diplomatic relations with Israel.

Though the demonstrators were kept away from the embassy itself, the tightly controlled Egyptian media gave wide coverage to the protest in a move seen as a government attempt to let off some steam.

Reflecting the popular mood, state-controlled Egyptian television has lauded Palestinian suicide bombers, who have killed over 40 Israelis in the past week, as "self sacrificing heroes."

And the country's top Muslim cleric, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, said in remarks published Monday that "suicide attacks carried out in the Israeli settlements... are one of the highest forms of martyrdom."

"The Egyptian people are angry at the government, and they are letting it know that they expect more" in the way of help for the Palestinians, says Youmna Samaha, a leading political commentator on Egyptian radio. "But what can Mubarak do?"

Arab analysts doubt that either Egypt or Jordan - the two Arab countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel - would break off those relations under any but the most extreme circumstances, such as Yasser Arafat's death.

"Keeping relations, even at a minimal level, is more helpful than breaking them," says Dr. Masen Gharaib, head of the government-backed Institute of Diplomacy in Amman, Jordan. "At least that gives Jordan, at certain difficult moments, the possibility to talk to some Israelis."

Jordan and Egypt have both withdrawn their ambassadors from Tel Aviv since the second intifadah broke out in September 2000.

But TV images of Palestinian men being rounded up by Israeli soldiers, and of Palestinian corpses piling up in hospital morgues, are being broadcast all around the Arab world, and feeding a mood of popular anger that has not been seen for several years.

While some leaders, such as Mr. Mubarak, are seeking to channel that anger away from themselves and toward Israel and the United States, others are encouraging and riding it. Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, for example, has himself led popular protests in Tripol, calling on other Arab countries to raise a common army to support the Palestinians.

There is no such enthusiasm for a wider war, however, in Lebanon, which borders Israel to the north, and which runs the greatest risk from a general conflagration.

The radical Islamic Hizbullah has launched two rocket attacks on Israel from positions in southern Lebanon in recent days, and suspected Palestinian guerrillas have launched three more. That prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to write to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asking him to help stop such attacks, which he warned "could have alarming consequences on the stability of the region."

A second front?

Many Lebanese fear that a "second front" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to be opened with potentially dire consequences for a country already wracked with economic turmoil. The Lebanese defense minister Khalil Hrawi pledged this week, however, that "there will be no such thing as a second front. The government is taking the necessary measures to keep things under tight control."

The plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank has drawn widespread sympathy from Lebanese – demonstrations in Beirut have attracted Christians and Muslims alike – but few people are willing to accept that Lebanon alone should confront Israel on the battlefield.

Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law at Beirut's St. Joseph University, says that Lebanon, unlike other Arab frontline states ringing Israel, is on a "razor's edge."

"Unlike Jordan, Egypt and even Syria to an extent, Lebanon's room for diplomatic maneuver with Israel is nil," he says. "The only step for Lebanon from here is a military escalation which would have dire consequences. We are in the worst possible position," he worries.

Lebanon's economy is in tatters, crippled by a public debt of $28 billion. If the Lebanese government permitted a second front to be "opened" by Hizbullah and Palestinian fighters, the result would be war, and "I don't think there is any real enthusiasm for a war with Israel," Professor Mallat adds.

But the decision does not rest with the Lebanese government. Neighboring Syria dominates politics in Lebanon, and Damascus will have the final say on the level of military activity along the border with Israel, analysts say.

"There is no Lebanese position, there is only a Syrian position" on developments along the border, says Farid Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "It's a calculated game that has not run out of control yet. But it's very risky because no one knows what Sharon will do."

• Nicholas Blanford in Beirut and Philip Smucker in Cairo contributed to this report.

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