Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In the Arab Press, Multiple Targets For Scorn

The Lede, The New York Times, December 29, 2008

A review of Arabic and English-language Web sites from the Arab world on Monday shows that gory images of destruction from the air attacks in Gaza are dominating news reports, as you would expect. The term being used nearly universally by Arab media outlets to describe the Gaza attacks is “massacre,” according to Marc Lynch, a blogger and media analyst who writes Abu Aardvark.

But there is much more to the Arab media’s reaction to the news from Gaza than just the reflexive denunciations of Israel for mounting the attacks.

Considerable attention is being paid to comments by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. In a speech Sunday night, Mr. Nasrallah condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza in the harshest terms, but then pointed his finger at the governments of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab regimes that he said were conspiring with Israel against residents of Gaza.

“There is true and full collaboration between certain Arab regimes, especially those who have already signed peace deals with Israel, to crush any form of resistance,” he told thousands of Hezbollah supporters in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Mr. Nasrallah’s comments were the main story on the Arabic-language Web site of the satellite television channel Al Arabiya and the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, among others, early on Monday afternoon. (Al Arabiya’s English-language Web site also featured the comments, but gave them less prominence in English than in Arabic.)

The comments fed into Hezbollah’s ongoing narrative that it is the truest friend of the Palestinian cause, not the American-aligned governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, who have shown themselves once again to be unable to stop Israeli aggression.

Throughout the Arab world, in fact, the Gaza attacks are being received as a gift-wrapped package by opponents of the American-allied regimes, regardless of where the opponents fall on the political spectrum, said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Al Dostor, one of the most outspoken opposition newspapers in Egypt, ran on its home page a photo-montage, with images of the bloodshed in Gaza placed on top of a picture taken in Cairo last week of the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abu Gheit, and his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni. The central photo, which shows the two diplomats hand in hand, apparently was chosen to convey the idea that Israeli the attacks on Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza, were mounted with at least tacit Egyptian support, a charge the Egyptian regime has denied.

By contrast, the official state-run Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, after calling for an end to “the Israeli killing machine,” concentrated on reporting that the Egyptian government had allowed 17 aid trucks to pass through the Rafah border crossing into Gaza.

The official Jordanian press took a similar approach of looking for hopeful developments. Al Rai, for example, reported that in Cairo, Mr. Abul Gheit and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, met to discuss a plan for a Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire followed by an agreement for calm.

There is no love lost on Hamas in many Arab capitals, in large part because it is an ally of other Islamic opposition movements in the region, like the Muslim Brotherhood, that threaten the ruling regimes. But because the general Arab public is solidly behind the Palestinian cause, criticism of Hamas during a time of crisis is being kept to a minimum, even in state-run newspapers, according to Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

While Hamas remains locked in a frequently bloody rivalry with Fatah, Mr. Abbas’s political party, which governs the West Bank, the Gaza air attacks have been treated as a time for solidarity in the Palestinian press. Al-Ayaam, the main Palestinian newspaper in Ramallah, devoted its coverage to details of the chaos in Gaza and news about a population in shock and crisis, rather than political recriminations.

Even so, though, there were signs of mounting frustration with Hamas among some Arab commentators — along with a sense of despair that after the dust settles, Israel and Palestine will be no closer to solving the region’s woes. Hassan Haidar, on the English-language Web site of Al-Hayat, wrote that while Israel had been looking for a pretext to attack Gaza, “Hamas’s decision to suspend the truce was offered to Israel on a silver plate, with the movement falling in the Israeli trap.”

And in the Daily Star, a Beirut-based English-language publication that includes a wider range of opinions than is usually seen in the Arab press, editorials blasted Israel’s “wanton disregard for innocent life,” but also said that the strife between Fatah and Hamas, once again, had been shown not to be in the interest of Palestinians.

It is no secret that the period of Hamas’ rule in Gaza since 2007 has been one of little or no accomplishment and of supremely unimaginative leadership. The Islamist movement has provided its enemy with a pretext to bring ruin on the very people whose rights a resistance group is supposed to defend. It is not just the rival Fatah faction that recognizes this: Even some long-time supporters of Hamas’ tougher line have now retreated to a more pragmatic middle ground from which the obvious conclusion is that flipping makeshift rockets at a regional superpower will never liberate occupied land, only expose the dispossessed to further hardship.

After saying that Israel seemed “poised to embark on a course of even greater folly,” the Star editorial continued:

The Israelis have been down this road before, and it has never worked. Sure, churning up Gaza and scattering Hamas’s forces would be easier than the failed attempt to accomplish something similar against Hizbollah here in Lebanon in 2006. It might even help some members of the Israeli military to regain a measure of the confidence lost in places like Aita al-Shaab and Maroun al-Ras. But once the Israelis have had their way with Gaza, what then? Will the citizens of Israel be any closer to being accepted by their neighbors? Will those Palestinians and other Arabs willing to negotiate a peace — not a surrender — have any more credibility with their respective publics?

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