Middle East

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In a Narrow Place

Students in Cairo protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza
Protesters at Cairo University face riot police, April 3, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Following last Friday’s afternoon prayers, a man stood outside Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar mosque and shouted for President Hosni Mubarak’s removal until a group of onlookers urged him to be quiet, lest the secret police remove him. In Egypt, popular pressure is mounting for the government to take measures against Israel. Large protests, which had tapered out over the course of 18 months of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, have begun anew since the Israeli army stepped up its operations in the Occupied Territories following the March 27 suicide attack at Netanya, Israel. Increasingly bold slogans have become popular in the protests: "Hey Mubarak, you’re a coward! You’re an agent of the Americans!" and "Hey Suzanne [Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady], let Hosni wear the dresses!"

But Egyptian measures against Israel would anger the United States, which supplies Egypt with its biggest source of annual foreign aid. So the government is clutching at any hope the Americans can offer to get the moderate Arab regimes out of their current predicament. Or so it seems from reading Egypt’s government-owned press, which has shown revived optimism that the United States could broker a lasting peace in the region.

On April 5, Ibrahim Nafie, editor of the state’s flagship daily Al-Ahram, wrote that the Bush administration is beginning to adopt a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and could act to "alleviate" the situation in the Occupied Territories. "In truth, the change in the position of U.S. President George W. Bush, who has started to show much understanding of the Palestinian position and to tone down his support for the Israeli position, could be the key to effecting the necessary breakthrough," Nafie wrote. "The present situation [in the Occupied Territories] cannot persist for long, and this is what the European Union and Russia now strongly appreciate. The signs are that the United States fully understands this and has kept General Anthony Zinni in the region, trying to broker a cease-fire."

The London-based Palestinian émigré daily Al-Quds al-Arabi was not convinced. "We wish the Egyptian government and the democratic institutions it is talking about had polled the Egyptian people and asked them what they think," wrote editor Abdel-Bari Atwan in the April 5 edition of the paper. "But since when have Arab governments, and Egypt’s in particular, listened to, or acted on, their people’s views?" He asked. The demonstrations sweeping Egypt are not orchestrated. They are "genuine, spontaneous, and sincere," he wrote, adding that the protesters have been calling for severing all ties with Israel and actively supporting the Intifada. "But instead of listening to the voice of the street, the Egyptian authorities unleashed their security forces with orders to use all necessary force to disperse the demonstrators."

Egypt’s opposition press agreed. "How can we allow American interests to remain in the Arab countries after the charade [of being an even-handed peace broker] revealed itself? It has become clear that America is the ‘Great Satan,’ the term we said was crazy when Ayatollah Khomeini used it," wrote columnist Gamal Badawi in the April 3 edition of Cairo’s opposition Al-Wafd. "Now the bitter truth is that America wishes us evil and destruction for the sake of Israel."

After U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Egypt on April 9, the state’s main writers lashed out against those who criticized the government for not adopting a more strident stance against Israel. "The Arab world, as a result, is currently under assault on two fronts. On one side are the gangsters of the Israeli extreme right, determined to slight Arab moderates, overthrow Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, and roll back any progress made toward peace. On the other are Islamist groups, Arab nationalists, and Nasserists…. We do not have to delve deep into the past to find painful examples of how the Arab media have hampered vital decision-making processes. Making war is the most dangerous and potentially costly activities in which a nation can engage. Egypt, perhaps more than other countries in the region, knows the sacrifices entailed," wrote Al-Ahram editor Ibrahim Nafie on April 12, referring to Egypt’s belief that former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser was lured into the 1967 war against Israel war by Israeli wiles and urged on by the media’s saber-rattling.

"The purpose of war, however, is to accomplish a political end that diplomacy failed to achieve. War also entails risk calculation and potentially enormous human and material losses, particularly in these times. Certainly, Egypt is prepared to sustain all necessary sacrifices if it has no choice but to wage war in defense of its interests and integrity," he went on. But under what conditions would it seem that Egypt has no choice? Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, attempted to answer the question in the April 11 edition the semi-official, English-language Al-Ahram Weekly: "[Egypt] cannot refrain from taking up arms if Israel launches an attack on Syria or begins collective deportation of the Palestinians."

But some commentators in the semi-official media are replacing the romantic fantasy of the "Arab armies'" massive involvement in the conflict with a no less silly romance of a brave people fighting on its own, armed with nothing but a principle and the dreadful, hopeless tactic of turning themselves into human bombs. "The Palestinians are entering for the first time a war on their own land without help from anyone. They are moving the conflict away from slogans, be they pan-Arab, keyed to hopes of international humanitarian assistance, or Islamic, keyed to hopes of pan-Islamic unity," wrote poet Farouk Goweida in the April 12 edition of Al-Ahram. "In this conflict, this is the strength of the owners of the land versus those who stole into this holy land in the dark of the night." Other journalists are saying publicly that suicide operations are the only avenue left for besieged Palestinians. "These suicide operations are the only weapon the Palestinians have, given the emasculation of the Arab and Islamic states and America’s unconcealed alignment with Sharon. Bush asked Sharon to halt his military operations and withdraw his forces, but he gave him until the weekend to do so," columnist Salama Ahmed Salama wrote the April 12 edition of Al-Ahram. The claim that the bombing in Netanya triggered Sharon’s current war is a lie, Salama wrote. "The use of military violence against civilians is a tactic long favored by Sharon, as his record plainly shows, and no one could have expected the Palestinians to respond to the indiscriminate American-backed battering by ‘surrendering.’ "

Amidst all this, the Israelis are portraying themselves as facing an existential threat. Tel Aviv’s centrist Ma’ariv complained on April 10 that "60 years after the genocidal murder of European Jews, the Jewish state is the only member of the United Nations which is threatened with destruction by other members of the international body—countries which are also hard at work building weapons of mass destruction which they openly say they will use against Israel." "Not only is historical anti-Semitism rearing its head," the paper’s editors wrote, "But it is being reinforced by a new Arab anti-Jewish ideology, which has adopted the ugliest writings and ideas of the old school and added its own elements and its own resources."