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EGYPT: People Go One Way Over Israel, Regime Another | Inter Press Service
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EGYPT: People Go One Way Over Israel, Regime Another

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, May 26 2008 (IPS) - The anniversary of Israel’s 60th year of nationhood this month drew hearty congratulations from capitals around the world. But in Egypt, official acceptance of the Hebrew state contrasts starkly with popular disgust over Israel’s continued mistreatment of the Palestinian people.

“When it comes to Israel, the position of most Arab regimes – including Cairo – is directly opposed to that of the people,” Abdel Wahab al-Masiri, prominent historian and author of a three-volume Arabic-language encyclopaedia on Zionism told IPS. “After 60 years, the Arab public still broadly rejects Israel and its policies.”

For Israel, May 14 officially marked the anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence in 1948. Scheduled celebrations included fireworks displays and martial fanfare throughout the month.

Several western heads of state sent messages of congratulations, and stressing their support for Israel.

Not to be outdone, U.S. President George W. Bush took a five-day trip to the Middle East with the express purpose of attending anniversary festivities. In a May 15 speech before the Israeli parliament, he declared that the foundation of Israel represented “the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham, Moses and David.”

In the Arab world, however, the date had less jubilant associations.


On May 15, 1948, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were driven out from their homes by invading Zionist forces – often by means of terrorism. As hundreds of thousands were turned into refugees overnight, the event has been referred to ever since as “al-nakba” – Arabic for “the catastrophe”.

“Israel was, and remains to this day, founded on the criminal occupation of Palestinian land,” Essam al-Arian, prominent member of Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the largest opposition bloc in Egypt’s parliament, told IPS.

According to al-Masiri, Israel’s foundation in 1948 “coincided with the ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s original inhabitants.”

Three decades later, however, after a handful of Arab-Israeli wars, Egypt signed a peace agreement with the nascent state next door. The 1979 Camp David accord returned the Sinai Peninsula – captured by Israel in 1967 – to Egypt, in exchange for formal peace between the two antagonists.

Another 30 years on, however, the peace remains a cold one. Although Egypt and Israel maintain formal diplomatic relations, vast swathes of Egyptian public opinion is still consistently outraged by Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian people.

These policies include regular military assaults on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, usually resulting in high civilian death tolls among Palestinians, the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip (which shares a border with Egypt), continued settlement-building on occupied Palestinian land, and efforts to “Judaise” the city of Jerusalem.

A six-day assault on the Gaza Strip in early March left more than 120 Palestinians dead, many of them civilians. With the ostensible aim of neutralising Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli border towns, Israel continues to launch deadly attacks on the West Bank and Gaza Strip on an almost daily basis.

“As a result of this heinous behaviour, I would say that about 98 percent of the Egyptian public – even young people without political background – are unanimous in their rejection of Israel,” said al-Masiri.

Meanwhile, U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continue to go nowhere. Perennially citing “security concerns”, Israeli officialdom remains opposed to making even minor concessions to the Palestinian side.

“The current negotiations will never lead anywhere,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS. “Abbas has abandoned armed resistance – the only means of extracting concessions from Israel – for fruitless talks.”

In a stark indication of the gap between official and popular attitudes, the local independent press – citing Israeli sources – reported on May 11 that President Hosni Mubarak had sent a congratulatory telegram to Israeli President Shimon Perez on the occasion of the Hebrew state’s anniversary.

“That Mubarak would send a letter of congratulations to Perez reveals the level of the Arab regimes’ subservience to Israel,” said al-Masiri.

At a May 11 conference at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, opposition figures condemned the president’s reported note of congratulations. Participants went on to denounce Zionism – the notion of a state for Jews only – as a “racist ideology”, and described Israel’s foundation as “the greatest crime against humanity in modern history.”

Festivities in Israel have coincided with protest marches and demonstrations in several Arab countries, including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

In Cairo, May 15 saw a number of limited protests held in solidarity with Palestinian and Lebanese anti-Israel resistance groups. Demonstrators from all stripes of the political opposition burned Israeli flags and called for expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo.

At a protest march held at the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate, roughly 200 activists waved banners reading “60 years of resistance”. Protesters also blasted “moderate” Arab regimes for their tolerance of Israeli policies, chanting “You’re either with the resistance or you’re traitors.”

According to al-Arian, the limited nature of protests in Egypt can be attributed to the state’s penchant for meeting political demonstrations with force.

“Protests were relatively small and few in number due to fears that demonstrators would face violence, as often happens, at the hands of security forces,” he said.

Nevertheless, the government appears to have made at least one concession to public opinion.

On May 25, independent daily al-Dustour reported that a planned trip to Cairo and Alexandria by a delegation from the Tel Aviv-based Egypt-Israel Friendship Association had been cancelled at the last minute. According to sources cited in the Hebrew press, Egyptian authorities cancelled the visit due to fears of negative media attention after details of the event were broadcast on a popular local news programme.

In any event, said al-Arian, most Arab governments are hardly representative of the popular Arab will – especially when it comes to Israel.

“These regimes represent small ruling elites that were never elected by the public,” he said. “If governments were elected democratically, they – like the people – would most assuredly reject the state of Israel.”

 

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