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Palestinians find support lacking from Arab nations

An Israeli convoy maneuvered outside the central Gaza Strip.

REUTERS

An Israeli convoy maneuvered outside the central Gaza Strip.

CAIRO — Three years ago there was a hope that a growing movement for democracy might make Arab countries more supportive of the Palestinians, as governments grew more responsive to the people and their demands.

But during the latest bloodshed in Gaza, the opposite has occurred, according to supporters of the Palestinians, who found the official Arab reaction incoherent, at times providing cover for the Israeli military assault.

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The governments were accused of dithering at critical moments during the recent Israeli military offensive, where in the past, Palestinians counted on them to at least muster some diplomatic pressure to make it stop. Their feuds broke out in public, and Egypt even blamed Hamas, the Islamist movement in Gaza, rather than Israel, for dozens of Palestinian deaths.

“None of the Arab countries are being supportive. The entire burden is on the Palestinians,” said Mondher Maamar, a Tunisian protester who marched in support of Palestinians in Gaza in his country’s capital Friday.

For decades across the Arab world, polls have shown there is no cause that resonates more than the struggle of the Palestinians. That has remained true during the fight in Gaza, which has captured the region’s attention despite Syria’s civil war and the jihadist military advances in Iraq.

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But in the chaotic aftermath of the Arab uprisings, many regional governments appear more distracted than ever, by the new challenges to their rule, or in some cases, their intensifying fights against Islamist groups like Hamas.

Some of the governments found their voices, belatedly, as the Palestinian death toll mounted, sending aid or stepping up their condemnations. But mostly they seemed focused elsewhere. And last week, as Egyptian activists organized an aid convoy, and marches were held in Yemen and Tunisia, the breach between the leaders and their citizens seemed wider than ever.

“It’s remarkable,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and analyst. “In all the other invasions and assaults on Gaza, there was at least some government that would come out and talk about how what Israel was doing was illegal and show some support.

“This time around, there’s been nothing. The silence is deafening.”

Abu Tarek Sadek, a Palestinian who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, said the Palestinians were moving “backward.”

“Before the uprisings, leaders of the old regime used to at least talk about the Palestinian cause, although they were lying,” he said. “Today we are completely absent. We used to be the No. 1 issue. Now, we’re No. 24.”

Rami G. Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, said that the “governments are preoccupied, with existential issues — they’re not the same as they were five, eight years ago.”

As a result, people in the region were “doubly disillusioned, with the inability of the governments to do anything about Israel, and their inability to achieve the goals of the uprisings,” he said.

In Tunisia, regarded as the only country to stay on the democratic path after its revolt, leaders appeared to be paying closer attention to public sentiment, offering to send medicine to Gaza and to take in wounded children. Officials said they were trying to play a mediating role in the conflict — a role that Egypt seemed to be abdicating.

“The Arab Spring started in Tunisia — we were the first to have a revolution, and we should be the first to condemn justice and encourage freedom,” said Marwa Betlili, a student who attended the rally in Tunis on Friday.

The changing role of Egypt, long seen as a leader in the region and a frequent mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, crystallized much of the anger. The country’s shift came after the military ouster last year of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was Egypt’s first fairly elected president, and a close ally of Hamas. After the takeover, the military-backed government waged a determined campaign against Hamas, using the courts and sympathetic media outlets to implicate the Palestinian movement in often-outlandish plots against the state.

The antagonism has continued under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the ouster of Morsi and who has kept Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza all but sealed, further isolating not just Hamas but all the Palestinians trapped in the fighting there. A few hours before Israel launched its ground assault of Gaza on Thursday, Egypt’s official state news agency provided the Israelis with an unexpected boost.

In a statement, it quoted the country’s foreign minister as blaming Hamas for the deaths of at least 40 Palestinians. The statement, which also criticized Qatar and Turkey, said the deaths would have been prevented if Hamas had signed an Egyptian cease-fire initiative.

On Twitter, Anshel Pfeffer, a writer for Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, encapsulated the surprise at the turn of events: “Incredible that #Israel is going into #Gaza and the greatest Arab state, #Egypt is not saying a word of criticism, just blaming #Hamas.”

From a distance, it was hard to know where the rest of Egypt stood. Television hosts continued to thunder against Hamas, though there was one notable moment of dissent, from a talk-show host who had been a reliable government supporter, but who chastised el-Sissi for failing to act.

“It’s not just that the opposition is weak, divided or in jail,” said Marc Lynch, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Egypt’s government had also successfully “mobilized so much anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment,” which also affected feelings about Hamas, he said.

There were few protests in Egypt: certainly nothing like the enormous pro-Palestinian rally on Saturday in London. But the space for such protest has been shrinking throughout the region, as people have become exhausted by all the turmoil, or fearful, amid new efforts around the region to limit dissent. Even so, the public’s gaze had not shifted from Gaza, analysts said.

In a recent column, Lynch found the number of Twitter mentions of Gaza in the region “surges to dominate everything else once the conflict begins.”

Though the public in Arab nations was divided on many issues, he wrote in a column, “the Palestinian narrative may be so entrenched, and the emotional resonance of Israeli attacks on Palestinians so intense, that it overwhelms this tendency toward fragmentation.”

Activists in Egypt who organized an aid convoy from Gaza said they were flooded with calls from all over the country, and the donations poured in faster, even, than in previous conflicts — in part because there were fewer and fewer ways to show support.

“It is very difficult, because people can’t protest,” said Salma Said, a 28-year-old organizer, talking about a new Egyptian protest law that had landed many of her fellow activists in jail.

Another organizer, Ramy Shaath, a Palestinian-Egyptian activist, said the Egyptian government was “playing with fire,” by not bowing to anger over Gaza, including by keeping the border closed, which was not only inhumane, but shortsighted, he said, depriving the authorities of leverage as well as valuable cross-border commerce.

As the convoy got underway early Saturday morning, and cruised through several security checkpoints, it appeared, for a moment, that the government was starting to bend.

Then the army turned the buses back.

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