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Israel, Arabs Support Abbas at Egypt Summit

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Israel, Arabs Support Abbas at Egypt Summit

Middle East

Israel, Arabs Support Abbas at Egypt Summit

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The leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. They're there to discuss ways to move the Middle East peace process forward now that Hamas has taken over the Gaza Strip. They'll also be looking for ways to strengthen Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, and ways to isolate Hamas. The summit is being held amid ongoing tensions and violence in the Middle East that reach into Lebanon.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is at the summit and joins us. And Peter, Arab leaders have rallied around Abbas since his forces were routed by Hamas fighters in Gaza. How significant is that? And what can they do at this stage of the game to help the Palestinians?

PETER KENYON: Well, I think the most significant thing about this summit is in fact the political realignment, moderate Arab states and Israel lining up behind President Abbas' Fatah movement and against Hamas. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak called the Hamas takeover of Gaza a coup, underlining that isolation.

The theory being put forth by analysts now is that if Abbas receives a package of support after this summit - and that's why they're here, more aid money and easing of conditions for residents of the West Bank and possibly assistance for Fatah security forces as well down the line - that could drive down support for Hamas as Palestinians in Gaza see the growing disparity between what they have and what residents of the Fatah-controlled West Bank have.

MONTAGNE: But as always for the Palestinians, anything in their condition that changes can't without the cooperation of Israel. What is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert saying there?

KENYON: Well, this is where the more pessimistic, some might say more realistic, view kicks in. Yesterday, the Israeli cabinet did approve the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. But that money will be released in stages; the timetable is unclear. And the other major component, which is a push to get Israel to remove scores of roadblocks in the West Bank, may be in trouble.

Today, Israeli papers are reporting that the military is objecting to that because Israel believes Abbas is not in full control of even his own security forces let alone other armed factions in the West Bank. So it's not yet clear that these promises of support will yield as much as hoped.

MONTAGNE: Now, what about the Palestinian reaction to all of this, this emergency government that excludes Hamas? Do people see hope for improvement?

KENYON: I was in both the West Bank and Gaza last week and I didn't hear much in a way of optimism. Residents of Ramallah are relieved to see Fatah still in charge there but they're quite uneasy with this emergency government. They're not convinced of its legitimacy, and they're very concerned about the fate of some one and a half million civilians in Gaza if only the most basic humanitarian aid is allowed in. So really, I wouldn't say there's much hope there at the moment.

MONTAGNE: And in the meantime, there has been explosions killing U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon, and that's a first for peacekeepers. There's a video of the BBC journalist who was kidnapped in Gaza weeks ago showing him wearing an explosive vest. Are these signs that tensions are rising across the region?

KENYON: I think it's clear that it is. The attack on the Spanish and Columbian peacekeepers came not far from the border with Israel. There was, of course, the war there last year. There were rockets fired in the northern Israel recently. The Shiite Hezbollah movement denies involvement in any of those incidents, but people are quite nervous about renewed conflict there.

And that video of Alan Johnston wearing an explosive vest, that's seen as a warning for Hamas not to storm the compound in Gaza where he is being held. We should note that this is also the one-year anniversary of the Gaza kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. Some Middle East diplomats hoping to keep things calm this summer may have their hands full.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

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