Arab states confronted by popular rage

20 October 2000

Arab leaders are due to gather in Cairo on 20-21 October for a summit conference on the Palestine situation, amid mounting anger across the region at Israel's actions against the Palestinians and towards holy places in Jerusalem.

As angry demonstrations swept the region, Arab politicians did their best to respond to the strong feelings being voiced on the streets and on free media outlets such the Al-Jazeera television station.

However, in a number of Arab capitals, there was concern lest the popular outrage should be turned against the governments themselves.

Egypt and Jordan have both witnessed demonstrations calling for diplomatic ties with Israel to be severed. In Cairo, protestors shouted slogans dating back to the militant days of Nasserism, such as 'Wake up, wake up Egyptians, the Zionists are coming' and 'The one who hits Palestine today, tomorrow will strike at Ras el-Tin' (in Alexandria). Egyptian police stood back, while demonstrators burned effigies of US President Clinton.

Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Bassiouni, said on 6 October that his government could withdraw him from his post if the Arab summit approved the move. 'A withdrawal of ambassadors from Israel would not resolve the problem because dialogue with Israel would be indirect, but if the Arab summit decides such a move, it must be respected.'

In Jordan, the government banned all demonstrations after a protest on 6 October turned violent, leaving 69 policemen injured. There were also further violent demonstrations outside the US embassy in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia has been playing a influential role in framing a unified Arab response to the crisis. Crown Prince Abdullah on 9 October visited wounded Palestinians being treated in Saudi hospitals. He said King Fahd had personally donated SR 30 million ($8 million) to 'the heroes of the Al-Aqsa intifada'. A televised campaign had raised a further SR 150 million ($40 million) by 11 October, reflecting the depth of feeling aroused throughout the Arab world at the plight of the Palestinians. The crown prince warned Israel not to take any ill-considered actions against neighbouring states. 'Let no one be under any illusions that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would stand by watching with folded arms, ' he said.

Saudi Arabia has been conducting consultations with a number of key Arab leaders in the run-up to the proposed summit conference. They included Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who made his first visit to the kingdom in 20 years, arriving by land on 11 October.

The summit itself is expected to support Palestinian demands for an international commission of inquiry into the causes of the latest violence, and will emphasise the demand for full Arab sovereignty over the Muslim holy places in East Jerusalem

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