'United' Arab world condemns the violence but does nothing

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The Independent Online

As Palestinian children are shot down by the Israelis, the Arab world has been experiencing some familiar sensations: outrage and impotence, fury and humiliation. In any other society, real political unity might have been created by the tragedy of Jerusalem and the occupied territories.

As Palestinian children are shot down by the Israelis, the Arab world has been experiencing some familiar sensations: outrage and impotence, fury and humiliation. In any other society, real political unity might have been created by the tragedy of Jerusalem and the occupied territories.

But what do the Arabs have? Saddam Hussein accusing Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of being "imperialist cowards" as American and British aircraft use their airstrips for bombing raids over Iraq; Christian Maronites demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon; Sudanese and Chadians killed in the streets of Libya; continuing distrust between Yemen and Saudi Arabia...

Officially, of course, unity - the old carthorse of every Arab nationalist - is being taken for its usual gallop around the ring. Syria has denounced the "massacre" of Jerusalem, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has condemned the "butchery" at the Dome of the Rock, the Gulf press has called for the relaunching of the "intifada" uprising - without apparently realising an armed version of that same uprising is now under way.

Yasser Arafat and Bashar al-Assad talk of an Arab summit - but the history of the Middle East is papered with Arab summits, most of which formed urgent committees of inquiry that everyone always forgot.

But the Arabs have long realised the action taken by their governments is in exactly inverse proportion to their words. When the Israelis are given a rhetoric bath, you can be sure that they have little to worry about. While privately horrified by what they see on their television screens - Middle East stations have shown, repeatedly and in slow-motion, the unexpurgated tape of the 12-year-old boy being killed in Gaza and reported the death yesterday of another boy on the same spot - Arabs have no illusions about their own powerlessness.

A group of Palestinians in the Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in Sidon, Lebanon, demanded the right to march en masse back to Israel but were swiftly told by the Lebanese authorities they would do no such thing. In Ein el-Helweh lives one of the more cynical local Palestinian leaders,who has all along predicted the collapse of the "peace process". Mounir Maqdah, once one of Mr Arafat's trusties in Lebanon whose home was the target of an Israeli helicopter attack in 1996, threatens the resumption of armed Palestinian raids across the southern border of Lebanon.

But don't take him too seriously. He also talks about the start of guerrilla raids from Jordan and Syria, something no sane Syrian or Jordanian leader would ever permit. He asks why the US, which used its "entire military arsenal" to get the refugees back to Kosovo, cannot do the same for the Palestinians of Palestine/Israel. Does one hear hollow laughter in the refugee camps? Or are such comments a sign of real political innocence?

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