Simon Assaf reports from Lebanon about the growing unrest in the Middle East.
With the Afghan war still smouldering the US is having difficulties in moving to the next stage of its 'war on terror'. US vice-president Dick Cheney toured the Middle East trying to win Arab support for a full scale invasion of Iraq. The Arab leaders, however, have shown little appetite for a third Gulf War while the Occupied Territories are ablaze. Saudi Arabia has refused the US permission to use its airbases for any strike on Iraq, with the crown prince saying bluntly: 'If the US wants to overthrow [Saddam Hussein], it will have to put an army on the ground in Iraq.' Bahrain's crown prince publicly castigated Cheney, telling him, 'The people who are dying today in the streets are not a result of Iraqi action. The people who are dying today are dying as a result of Israeli action.' Even in Kuwait, which was 'liberated' by the US in the second Gulf War, a Gallup survey revealed that 42 percent of the population supported Osama Bin Laden while 63 percent stated they 'disliked George W Bush'. On his stopover in Kuwait City Cheney was informed by Kuwaiti leader Sheik Sabah that he would not support military action. 'Not because Iraq is a friend of Kuwait,' he stated, 'but because present circumstances are not suitable...and the Iraqi regime will not be harmed but Iraqi people will.'
The Arab regimes cannot stomach the prospect of US troops unleashing a new massacre on Iraq while Palestinians are under siege. Hence the White House dispatched US general Anthony Zinni to try and affect a ceasefire and rein in the Israelis. The west is discovering how badly it needs peace in Palestine to wage a war on Iraq.
Ariel Sharon has unleashed the biggest military assault on the Palestinians since his bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Twenty thousand troops, backed by tanks, helicopter gunships and F16s, have been battering refugee camps, villages and towns across the Occupied Territories. Thousands of men between the ages of 16 and 60 have been rounded up and shipped to 'military camps' and, in a chilling development, their ID numbers have been scrawled on their arms and foreheads. Over 1,000 Palestinians have died and countless numbers have been injured. The grim daily round of mass funerals is beamed into homes, and live updates of acts of resistance interrupt television programmes. The top selling Arab pop song features an Iraqi singer 'martyred' by the Israelis so that he can join his sweetheart in paradise.
The greatest achievement of the Intifada is the courage Palestinians have shown in the face of overwhelming military might. Sharon's inability to deliver a 'victory' and his declining popularity at home have prompted a change of direction from George W Bush. The administration has become more vocal in its criticism of its Israeli friends. The shift was marked by the US-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1397, but even here there was little to upset the Israelis. The resolution for the first time recognises 'a Palestinian state' but is so vague that it opens the door for Israel to grab as much of the Occupied Territories as possible. The resolution fails to demarcate borders, name a capital or address the refugees' right to return. The Israeli cabinet was, not surprisingly, 'very happy with the wording'. Combined with the Saudi peace plan--which offers a full normalisation of relations with Israel--these 'peace initiatives' have provoked disdain. With no right of return the millions of Palestinians languishing in camps across Jordan, Syria and Lebanon will be written off--and with the mounting problems they face in the host countries, this threatens to become a source of instability which could erupt at any time.
Arab governments are keen to make an accommodation with the Israelis and imperialism, but they know that they cannot sell such a plan to their populations. They are also desperate to keep the Intifada 'confined' to the Occupied Territories, hence very few demonstrations are officially sanctioned. Yet students have taken to the streets of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Morocco. One of the biggest demonstrations for years wound its way through the streets of the Jordanian capital, Amman, recently. A Jordanian demonstrator commented bitterly, 'It fills me with anger that Americans and British are allowed to rally for Palestine in their own capitals and in front of their leaders' headquarters, but when we display our support of our Palestinian brethren, our government releases dogs and angry soldiers to beat us up.'
Across the region economic and political problems continue to mount. There have been three major strikes in Lebanon in as many weeks. Airline workers and civil servants struck against privatisation and 600 workers at Lebanon's biggest factory have walked out over wage cuts. The biggest union demonstration for ten years, involving 10,000 workers, sent the Lebanese government into a spin. Open criticism of the Saudis' hated religious police is being aired for the first time in the Saudi press. Riots against police brutality have engulfed Jordan. The Berbers in Algeria have taken to the streets. The Syrian regime has put an MP, Mamoun al-Homsi, on trial for calling for mild democratic reforms. (Homsi faces 20 years imprisonment if convicted.)
The nervousness of the regimes is best illustrated by the preparations under way in Beirut for the forthcoming Arab League summit. All universities and schools will be closed. A curfew and a 'red zone' will cover most of the city. Soldiers patrol the streets. Road blocks and searches have become the norm.
If the US decides to launch war on Iraq the stakes are high. Arabs still live over the greatest reserves of oil in the world. The Intifada is seen as a genuine uprising, and is a daily reminder to all of the oppressed that you can fight back even against the most brutal of enemies. The prospect of the Intifada spilling over and engulfing the whole region terrifies the dictators and kings, yet it brings hope to millions.