For Disappointed Palestinians, Arab Inaction Trumps Arab Words

Despite outrage, Arab aid to Gaza far outpaced by European Union's.

January 7, 2009, 10:42 PM

Jan. 8, 2009 — -- More than a week of acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza has bolstered a persisting Palestinian suspicion: While Arab states talk much of their support for the cause, they have taken little action.

So far, as Palestinians see it, both Arab states and non-state actors like Hezbollah have failed to respond concretely in their time of crisis.

"No regimes have risen to rescue us, nor have the loud protests of political parties been of any use," wrote Hafez Barghouti in the Palestinian al-Hayat al-Jadidah newspaper. "At the end of the day, the Palestinians remain alone."

"Arab countries have not mobilized," said Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator and longtime Palestinian spokeswoman. "They have not used their political, much less their economic clout to help Palestinians. Economically, they have been helping, but not in a big way.

"Palestinians feel a sense of let down, even a betrayal," she said.

Months before the operation, Arab states had notably failed to match their money with their rhetoric. In July 2008, a time of booming regional prosperity from high oil prices, the Washington Post found that, of 22 Arab nations that pledged funds to the Palestinian Authority, only three -- Algeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- had followed through with contributions.

"There is still a big gap between what has been pledged and what has been delivered," said Mustapha Bargouti, a Palestinian analyst and political activist in the West Bank.

For Gaza's Palestinians, who have lived through a year-long blockade allowing little access to outside goods or travel, the cost of what is seen as Arab inaction has been particularly high. Since the Hamas election victory in 2006, most international aid to the Gaza Strip has been cut off, restricted to the relative trickle of U.N. efforts.

Arab analysts point out warily that the flow of aid in Gaza would likely be handed out through the local government -- Hamas -- strengthening their popular support through grassroots patronage. Over the course of their reluctance, food, medicine, and other critical supplies to Gaza have grown scarce.

"They were dying quietly and people preferred to forget their plight," said Dina Shehata of Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Relief for Gaza

In January 2008, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA, launched an appeal to Arab countries for funds to cover the humanitarian strain in Gaza. The results, said the U.N., were "disappointing."

As of UNRWA's latest figures, its largest donations come from the West, with 94 percent coming from the European Union alone. In contrast, Arab states account for roughly 3 percent of UNRWA funds.

Diplomatic efforts from the Arab bloc are also seen to have floundered for lack of commitment and capital. Days after the start of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, intended to end Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, a meeting of Arab foreign ministers convened in Cairo but failed to express a unified position.

In the vacuum of muted Arab response, non-Arab governments in the Middle East have raised their voices. Turkey has condemned the offensive, while Iran -- widely seen as a Hamas patron -- has called for an oil embargo on Israel and its allies.

Cast Lead has given Arab states a fresh talking point. Saudi Arabia described the operation as "a holocaust on Gaza Strip ... emulating Nazi war crimes."

But Shehata, a political scientist, said that has had little noticeable impact on the realpolitik guiding the official Arab response.

"Every time an Arab government has gotten involved in the Palestinian issue, it hasn't been for the Palestinians, it has been for their own interests," Shehata said. "No country is going to sacrifice its own interest for another people, no matter how sympathetic."

Even so, Palestinian activists are calling for a stronger Arab response.

"Arab countries should take major political steps to make Israel feel that it is paying a high price for the reoccupation of Gaza," said Bargouti. "They should tell Israel that its relationships could be cancelled if Israel continues this attack.

"Right now," Bargouti added, "the only country that has kicked out their Israeli ambassador is Venezuela."

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