The rumbling from Gaza, writes Hassan Nafaa, is the overture to something truly momentous.
The birth of the Arab system is usually associated with the creation of the Arab League (AL), in 1945. But two earlier developments paved the way for the AL’s creation. One was that Egypt, acting as the key country in the region, had a clear vision of what it wanted to do and was ready to act on that vision when regional and international circumstances were right — which is exactly what happened after the end of WWII. The other was that the conflict in Palestine had reached a point where most Arab countries recognised the danger posed by the creation of an independent Jewish state in their midst.
Reeling from the protracted fighting of World War II, Britain gave its endorsement for any scheme promoting unity among the Arabs. The endorsement, which was made public in 1943, was aimed to deter Arab countries from siding with Germany. Egypt, at the time ruled by a Wafd government led by Mustafa El-Nahhas, saw its chance. Soon it opened bilateral and multilateral consultations with Arab countries in an effort to lay down the framework of a regional political structure. The AL came into being as a result. It wasn’t a first step towards federalism as many hoped but a congregation of seven semi-independent countries willing to pass resolutions by consensus, more of a political club than a blueprint for unity.
To reiterate, Egypt, the largest and most influential Arab country at the time, was eager to lead the nascent organisation. And the Arabs had a rallying issue: Palestine. Indeed, the AL charter includes a special addendum on Palestine, one in which Arab countries pledge to help the Palestinians gain full independence. Cairo was chosen as the permanent headquarters of the AL and the first AL secretary-general, Abdel-Rahman Azzam Pasha, was an Egyptian with strong pan-Arab views.
Continuing interest of the leading country (Egypt) in the Arab’s central issue (Palestine) was central to the AL. When this interest waned, following Anwar El-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, things started going downhill. One can argue that the transfer of the AL seat from Cairo to Tunisia was the first sign of the clinical death of the AL. Soon Egypt’s regional status would suffer as well.
The AL staggered on only to return, 10 years later, to its original seat in Cairo. But the damage had been done. Since then the AL has plodded on as if in a coma, often indecisive, at times clearly influenced by US and Israeli pressure. It is now hard to call an Arab summit without permission from Washington, if not Israel.
Some say that the AL never had any power to start with. They are wrong. Here is the evidence: the first Arab summit, held in Inshas, Egypt, in 1946, was dedicated entirely to the Palestinian issue and paved the way for Arab participation in the 1948 war; regular Arab summits, held since 1964, took action to stop Israel from diverting the River Jordan; the Khartoum summit came up with decisions that helped frontline Arab countries after 1967, thus leading to the victory of 1973 — the last incidence of Arab solidarity.
When Egypt retreated from the conflict with Israel Arab calculations were thrown out of synch. Iraq’s long-running war with Iran and its subsequent invasion of Kuwait resulted from Egypt’s absence from the Arab scene. A sequence of events had started that eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the latter. The rot had started and it has continued until Arab officialdom now stands accused of aiding and abetting Israel in the latter’s brutal assault on Gaza.
Let’s go back a little bit in time to see how we ended up at this point. Before the peace process started Arab regimes had fought four wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), in addition to a war of attrition between 1967 and 1969, against Israel, and lost most. Unfortunately, peace efforts started out erratically and with no real plan. This is why the wars never ended and peace did not become a reality. As it turned out, armed struggle moved on to other fronts, especially the Lebanese and Palestinian, where guerrilla warfare soon merged with insurgency tactics.
Oddly enough, armed groups succeeded where Arab armies had failed. Hizbullah forced Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, and in 2006 survived a 33-day battle with Israel’s mighty war machine.
The 2000 victory encouraged Arafat to stand fast at Camp David and lifted the spirits of armed Palestinian groups in the occupied territories. Arafat was to pay with his life for his steadfastness. None of the concessions he had given to Israel weighed in his favour. His refusal to sign away Palestinian land opened the way to a flurry of armed struggle.
Currently, armed Palestinian groups led by Hamas are defying Israel’s killing machine despite the blockade and starvation. In fact, it was the decline of central government authority that gave armed groups the nourishment they needed.
Changes in the Arab scene over the past decades go beyond the failure of the official system in both peace and war, and even beyond the rise of armed groups and grassroots insurgents. They include the decline of the role of large Arab countries, the growing influence of smaller states, and the rise of non-Arab powers in the region such as Israel, Iran, Turkey and even Ethiopia.
The changes haven’t ended and the Gaza epic is likely to trigger more. Israel has not only committed a grave strategic error by attacking Gaza, it has made a worse mistake by implicating Arab officialdom in its actions. Few in the Arab world believe that Hamas triggered the current crisis, while many see Israel’s brutality as a sign that earlier hopes for peace had no foundations. In all probability, Hamas and the Palestinian resistance will emerge stronger from the current ordeal.
If it reoccupies Gaza, the Israeli army may be able to halt the firing of rockets but only at the cost of coming within range of the light weaponry of the resistance. Given their predilection for theatrics the Israelis may decide to abduct the political leaders of Hamas but such actions will not bring down the Hamas government, not even if they abduct Haniyeh himself. Fatah cannot return to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks without losing all credibility.
More significantly, the gap between Arab officialdom and people is likely to grow. How many years will Arab regimes need to absolve themselves from this crisis? Many advisers will be telling Arab leaders that people are going to forget, that things will turn out well at the end. I doubt it. In Lebanon, it is true, the politicians managed to deny Hizbullah the fruits of its victory, but Lebanon is not Gaza.
The rumbling in Gaza is the overture to something truly momentous. A change is taking root and one can only guess at its outcome.
* The writer is secretary-general of the Arab Thought Forum, Amman, Jordan.