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.

Bilal Hussein/AP
Protests: Lebanese students on Tuesday rallied against the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS
Aid: Egyptian police opened the gate at Rafah Sunday to allow in a truck bearing the Saudi flag.
Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS
People waited for the crossing to be opened.

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.

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."

"I found Nasrallah's comments to be objectionable, but I also found them to be ineffective because they had absolutely no effect on the ground," says Nabil Fahmy, an Egyptian diplomat and former ambassador to Washington. "What has had more of an effect in galvanizing the Egyptian people, understandably, is the bombing itself."

The Israeli offensive has triggered demonstrations in Europe and the Arab world. While Europeans have largely directed their protests at the Israeli government, Middle Easterners are pointing their ire at Egypt, with thousands marching on Egyptian embassies in Beirut and Amman, Jordan.

But as the war drags on, unease is growing among so-called Arab "moderates." Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have become more vocal in their denunciations of Israel's excessive military force. King Abdullah of Jordan has sacked his intelligence chief in what may be a move related to the Gaza crisis. Last week he and his wife, Queen Rania, donated blood for Palestinians in Gaza.

The violence hastened steps Tuesday to reach a cease-fire arrangement and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the UN to consult with Arab officials.

Syria, which hosts Hamas's leadership, also has been drawn into the diplomatic moves with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, holding talks Tuesday with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as part of a tour with European officials.

Syria is in an unusual position. It is the sole Arab state member of the so-called "resistance front," it continues to maintain an alliance with non-Arab Iran, backs Hezbollah and Hamas, and has acted to scuttle US policy gains in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

Still, its relations with Europe have thawed lately and there are hints of a renewed dialogue with the US under President-elect Barack Obama's administration. On the other hand, Syria's ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt have worsened.

"The Syrians have strong reason to believe that Hamas will not be defeated in this war, and on the contrary, will score a point for its allies, vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are loudly critical of Hamas today," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "It's not on Syria's agenda to make up with either Egypt or Saudi Arabia, given their positions on the current war. Syria is sticking by its allies and continuing to build-bridges with Europe."

But it is the powerful nonstate actors of Hezbollah and Hamas that draw most attention. Nasrallah's televised addresses are watched avidly by friends and foes alike for clues on what his enigmatic organization might do next. Hezbollah and its allies are in a strong position to triumph at the polls in June to form a new parliamentary majority and government. Hamas, having won elections in 2006, is the ruling authority in Gaza.

But with power comes responsibility. Hezbollah has refrained so far from coming to the assistance of its ally Hamas by opening up a new front in northern Israel largely because of the domestic political backlash such a move would invoke. Hamas, too, even if it emerges from this war claiming victory, may find its military options curtailed.

"In the short term, there will be a perception that they [Hamas] are stronger and that countries that supported them are stronger," says Mr. Fahmy, the Egyptian diplomat. "But if whoever is controlling Gaza a few months down the line cannot give people a better lifestyle … then I don't think they will continue to be heroes."

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