Muslim states slam Israel — and each other’s ties to it

Published May 16, 2021
Workers clear the rubble of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, that housed The Associated Press, broadcaster Al-Jazeera and other media outlets, in Gaza City, May 16. — AP
Workers clear the rubble of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, that housed The Associated Press, broadcaster Al-Jazeera and other media outlets, in Gaza City, May 16. — AP

A league of Muslim nations on Sunday demanded that Israel halt attacks killing Palestinian civilians amid heavy fighting between it and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, even as fissures between countries over their recognition of Israel emerged.

A statement by the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) hewed closely to previous ones issued by the Saudi-based group, including backing the decades-old call for Palestinians to have their own nation with East Jerusalem as its capital.

It called for an immediate halt to what it described as Israel’s barbaric attacks on Gaza and blamed “systematic crimes” against the Palestinians for hostilities now in their seventh day. The OIC statement came after a virtual meeting in which Saudi Arabia condemned the violation of the sanctity of Muslim holy sites and evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud opened the OIC meeting by urging the global community to end the escalation in violence and revive peace negotiations based on a two-state solution.

The 57-member body accused the United Nations Security Council of inertia. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei issued a separate statement on Sunday, tweeted by Malaysia's premier, calling for an emergency UN General Assembly meeting.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates called for a ceasefire. "De-escalation and the highest degree of restraint are important to avoid dragging the region to new levels of instability," said UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem al-Hashimy.

However, recent normalisation deals between Israel and some nations in the group — as well as their own concerns about Hamas — saw diplomats at points instead criticise each other.

“The massacre of Palestinian children today follows the purported normalisation,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said. “This criminal and genocidal regime has once again proven that friendly gestures only aggravate its atrocities.”

The past week has seen some of the worst violence across Israel and the Palestinian territory since the 2014 war in Gaza, with militants launching missiles and Israel pounding the blockaded coastal strip home to two million people with heavy fire. At least 188 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza with 1,230 people wounded. Eight people in Israel have been killed.

The OIC statement called on Israel to respect Muslims’ access to Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, as well as stop settlers from forcibly evicting Palestinian families from their homes.

“The plight of the Palestinian people is the bleeding wound of the Islamic world today,” Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar said.

But the video conference meeting saw some delegates instead turn their fire toward countries like Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, Muslim nations which reached normalisation deals last year to recognise Israel. While Egypt and Jordan earlier reached peace deals, supporters of the Palestinians criticised the new countries for recognising Israel before the formation of an independent Palestinian state.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu joined Zarif in criticising the normalisation, though Israel maintains diplomatic ties with Ankara.

“There are a few who have lost their moral compass and voiced support for Israel,” he said. “If there are half-hearted statements within our own family, how could we criticise others? Who will take our words seriously?”

FM Cavusoglu also called for an international protection mechanism for Palestinian civilians and told the OIC that Israel should be held accountable for war crimes and that the International Criminal Court could play a role.

Zarif accused Israel of “genocide and crimes against humanity”.

“Make no mistake: Israel only understand the language of resistance and the people of Palestine are fully entitled to their right to defend themselves,” Zarif said.

Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007, didn’t take part in the meeting, which came before consultations at the United Nations over the crisis.

Across the Arabian Peninsula, reactions to the fighting similarly have been mixed. In Qatar, home to the Al Jazeera satellite network, hundreds turned out late on Saturday night to listen to a speech by Hamas’ top leader Ismail Haniyeh. Kuwait’s parliament speaker reportedly spoke with Haniyeh on Saturday, as did Qatar’s foreign minister.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain and the UAE, government-linked media hasn’t been covering the current flare-up of violence nonstop like other networks in the region.

There are murmurs of dissent though. In Bahrain, civil society groups signed a letter urging the kingdom to expel the Israeli ambassador. In the UAE, where political parties and protests are illegal, Palestinians have expressed their anger quietly, worried about losing their residency permit. Some Emiratis have also expressed concerns.

“The region’s only democracy,” tweeted the Emirati writer and political analyst Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in writing about Israel’s strike on a Gaza building that housed the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute, said most Gulf Arab leaders fear Hamas’ rocket fire as “cynical, dangerous, unnecessarily provocative and endangering Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza alike”. That takes the pressure off those Gulf leaders to respond, unlike in other confrontations involving the Al Aqsa Mosque or when Israeli settlers force Arab families out of their homes, he said.

“There won’t be much sympathy for what is widely viewed in the Gulf as Israel’s heavy-handed and disproportionate retaliation,” Ibish wrote, “but it will be much easier for Gulf leaders and many citizens to regard the exchange as a tragic conflagration at the expense of ordinary people brought about by two leaderships over which they have neither control nor responsibility.”

'Important to be on the right side of history'

Speaking about the meeting, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that he reiterated the following:

  • Support for Palestinian cause defining principle of Flag of Pakistan foreign policy
  • Indiscriminate use of force by Israeli forces against defenceless Palestinians defies all international law
  • Tragedy of forced evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Al-Quds Al-Shareef is latest manifestation of systematic Israeli effort to change demographic structure, historical & legal status & Arab-Islamic / Christian character of Al-Quds Al-Shareef
  • Creating false equivalence between Israel, the aggressor and Palestinians, the victims, is inexcusable. Attempts to silence media through tyranny, unacceptable
  • Heavy minus sign OIC owes genesis to Palestinian issue. Muslim Ummah must exhibit strong solidarity for people of Flag of Palestinian Territories, with action

Qureshi added that there "comes a time in the history of nations when decisions taken are remembered by posterity and it is important to be on the right side of history," adding that this was one such moment. "We must not fail the Palestinian people at this critical juncture."

UNSC session

The United States told the United Nations Security Council on Sunday that it has made clear to Israel, the Palestinians and others that it is ready to offer support “should the parties seek a ceasefire” to end the worsening violence by Israel in Gaza.

"The United States has been working tirelessly through diplomatic channels to try to bring an end to this conflict," US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the 15-member council. "Because we believe Israelis and Palestinians equally have a right to live in safety and security."

As the Security Council held its first public meeting, Washington — a strong ally of Israel — has been isolated at the United Nations over its objection to a public statement by the Security Council on the worst violence between Israel and the Palestinians in years because it worries it could harm behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

"We call upon the US to shoulder its responsibilities, take a just position, and together with most of the international community support the Security Council in easing the situation," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who chaired Sunday's meeting because China is president for May.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations is "actively engaging all sides toward an immediate ceasefire" and called on them "to allow mediation efforts to intensify and succeed".

"Each time Israel hears a foreign leader speak of its right to defend itself it is further emboldened to continue murdering entire families in their sleep," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told the Security Council.

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