Arabs Protest Israel's Airstrikes In Gaza

Protests are being held in the Arab world as the violence around Gaza continues for a fourth day. Israel on Tuesday rejected any truce with Hamas. The Arab League will meet Wednesday in Egypt to discuss the crisis. More than 360 Palestinians have been killed since the Israeli offensive started Saturday. Rockets from Gaza have killed five Israelis.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host: INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We're going to look now at some of the fallout from Israel's military action this week. Israeli planes are bombing targets in Gaza, that's the strip of land controlled by the Palestinian group, Hamas. Medical officials say the assault on Hamas targets has now killed more than 340 people.

INSKEEP: And let's get a sense of Arab response from NPR's Peter Kenyon. He's in Cairo, Egypt. What kinds of protests are taking place around the Arab world?

PETER KENYON: Well, the largest one yesterday was in Beirut. It was organized by the Shiite militia Hezbollah. And their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, basically accused Egypt of collaborating with Israel. And there has been a concern about Hezbollah's reaction to all of this. And people were somewhat relieved in Lebanon yesterday to note that Nasrallah was careful not to announce any intention of mobilizing Hezbollah forces, for instance, along Israel's northern border. That's one of the so-called worst case scenarios as seen by some analysts as something that could cause the conflict to spiral out of control. For the moment, Nasrallah seemed content to focus on Arab regimes that in his view are doing Israel's work for them, and by that, he means Egypt keeping the border with Gaza closed, and condemning Hamas for failing to continue its ceasefire instead of defending the Palestinians. Nasrallah called on Egyptians to take to the streets, try and pressure their own government to open the borders and send in supplies. And by that, he meant not just food and medicine, but also weapons to help Hamas fight back against the Israeli military.

INSKEEP: And I guess Egypt is the only country besides Israel itself that actually has a border with Gaza, and has any kind of say here at all. What are Egyptian leaders saying in response to this blame being pointed at them?

KENYON: They're still on the defensive. They say they have a right to defend their border. They have sent thousands of security forces north to maintain that security. The Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, yesterday has said Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah was trying to sew chaos in Egypt. And he said Egypt can take care of its own interests, and he accused Hezbollah of essentially declaring war on Egypt.

And now it will be interesting, I think, to see if this becomes one of the lasting affects of this military action. Not just to drive a further wedge between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements, but also, to further polarize the so-called moderate Arab states - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordon - from Syria and Iran and other regimes.

INSKEEP: Peter it's interesting that you mentioned Hezbollah in Lebanon and what's being said on that side of the border with Israel, because some analysts are comparing Israel's strikes in Gaza with the strikes on the other side in Lebanon a couple of years ago. How do these two different conflicts compare so far?

KENYON: Well, from the analysis I'm reading, it's early days, yet of course, but the immediate consensus is that they have learned some lessons. This is from the Israeli viewpoint, of course. In other words, instead of rushing into Gaza, the way they rushed into Lebanon in the summer of 2006, this time, Israel carefully plotted out its campaign and has limited its stated goals. There's also a much heavier reliance on air strikes. There is one other comparison which comes back to Egypt again, and Nasrallah pointed it out in his speech yesterday. He said in 2006, when the Lebanese territory was under Israeli attack, Syria threw open its borders with Lebanon. He said Egypt should do the same now. And for a lot of Arabs, who are helplessly watching this unfold in Gaza, that seems like the least Egypt should do.

INSKEEP: Would you explain why it would make a difference, one way or the other, whether Egypt would open the borders in this particular circumstance?

KENYON: Well, it could make a huge difference. It would draw Egypt into the conflict. In Israel's eyes it would make them possibly an enemy, and there's very tense relations militarily, of course, between Israel and Egypt, despite their peace treaty. There are no army troops allowed on the border by that treaty. There's only police and other security forces and border guards. So it's a touchy issue for Egypt, and they have another problem, in that they want to support the Palestinians, but they do not necessarily want to support Hamas all that much. They do not have much love for Islamist regimes. The worse case scenario for Egypt would be, if there becomes a second front at the southern edge of Gaza - that is, Palestinians trying to fight their way into Egypt to get away from the Israeli attack, that would be a nightmare for Egyptians.

INSKEEP: So, is there any likelihood of a united Arab response to all this?

KENYON: Well, expectations are pretty low on that front, Steve. The GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council just met in Oman. They did condemn the Israeli military operation, but they didn't have much of a solution or any proposed course of action. The Arab League is coming here to Cairo, tomorrow. They face similar problems. To be fair to them, they're trying to juggle several very different agendas. It's hard for them to reach a consensus at the best of times. And whether the frustration and anger at what's happening in Gaza brings them much closer to a unified position this time remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Cairo. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

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In Egypt, Ire At Government Over Gaza Grows

Map of region
Alyson Hurt/NPR
An Egyptian policeman sits with arrested Palestinian boys as they are returned to Gaza on Monday i i

An Egyptian policeman sits with arrested Palestinian boys as they are returned to Gaza on Monday. The boys were caught after entering Egypt illegally over the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
An Egyptian policeman sits with arrested Palestinian boys as they are returned to Gaza on Monday

An Egyptian policeman sits with arrested Palestinian boys as they are returned to Gaza on Monday. The boys were caught after entering Egypt illegally over the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

With the exception of some wounded Palestinians admitted to Egyptian hospitals — and several truckloads of medical supplies headed into Gaza — the Gaza-Egypt border is locked down.

But many Egyptians want their government to do much more for the Gazans — instead of keeping them contained while the Israeli air barrage continues — and some are sharply critical of their government's response to the crisis.

On Monday, long, painfully slow lines formed at police checkpoints along the highway that runs through the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza border, as nearly every vehicle was searched, and all passengers were checked for documents.

An official in Cairo said the heightened security measures were prompted by the Palestinians who managed to get over the border wall into Egypt during clashes with Egyptian border guards Sunday.

The government also suspended permissions for journalists to get close to the border area.

Meanwhile, long convoys of government vehicles carrying hundreds of members of the security forces headed toward the border.

Egyptian officials have said that maintaining the integrity of a country's borders is the right of any sovereign state, but many in Egypt are acutely embarrassed to see Egyptian forces helping to keep the Palestinians in Gaza penned in while the Israeli assault expands.

At a truck stop not far from one of the backed-up checkpoints, drivers watched television coverage of a huge anti-Israel — and frequently anti-Egyptian — demonstration in Beirut.

Truck driver Rafat Imam says he isn't surprised by the anti-Egyptian sentiment around the Arab world. He says he, too, thinks the Egyptian government has a moral duty to help the Palestinians — and in his view, it's failing.

"It's shameful what's happening over there. Egypt has it in its power to do many things to help. The first thing it has to do is to open the border and allow the wounded to get medical treatment. That's the least we can do," Imam says.

The condemnations of Egypt have been spearheaded by Iran and Syria, and by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on Egypt to open the border.

"All we are asking for from the government of Egypt and the leaders of the Arab world is if you are incapable of stopping this aggression, then the least you can do is provide the materials needed for the people of Gaza to survive, resist and persevere. And I promise their fate will be victory," Nasrallah said.

Many Egyptians suspect that their country's leaders — given their fierce and longstanding opposition to Islamist parties — have no desire to see Hamas victorious.

No such hostility toward Hamas exists in the Sinai, however, where living conditions occasionally resemble those in the Palestinian territories. Just like the West Bank, there are young entrepreneurs here trying to sell goods to people stuck at checkpoints.

As the wind whips across his dusty bottles of shampoo, Ahmed Hanafi, 21, grows passionate when asked what should be done for the people of Gaza.

"The Egyptian government is doing nothing," he says. "We wish they'd give us weapons so we could go fight over there. I, myself — I don't have a kid, I would go."

But another, older vendor interrupts to say that Egypt isn't the problem.

"The real danger is Iran. Hamas takes its orders from Iran. It's a bigger danger than Israel," he says.

Everyone here agrees that Egypt has to do something to help the Palestinians, but it's still unclear what.

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