Arab leaders meet to unify ranks, with eye on Iran

Palestinians evacuated an injured protester near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the Gaza strip, on Sunday.
Palestinians evacuated an injured protester near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the Gaza strip, on Sunday.

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia hosted an annual gathering of Arab leaders on Sunday and pushed for a unified stance against rival Iran as the regional powerhouses vie for the upper hand in wars in Syria and Yemen.

Saudi King Salman told leaders from across the 22-member Arab League that Iran was to blame for instability and meddling in the region. He said Yemeni rebel Houthis, backed by Iran, had fired 116 missiles at the kingdom since Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen three years ago to try and roll back Houthi gains there.

The summit took place in the oil-producing eastern city of Dhahran, a location that may have been selected by the kingdom to avoid cross-border Houthi missile strikes that have targeted the capital, Riyadh, and southern border cities.


While locked in proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran also back opposing groups in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq.

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The summit also occurred in a weekend of continuing Palestinian protests on the Israel-Gaza border. In two weeks of protests, 28 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli fire.

The rallies were organized by Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers to protest the border closures by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

The Israeli military said Sunday it had destroyed a Gaza attack tunnel built by Hamas militants that penetrated Israeli territory.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the new Hamas tunnel was connected to a network dug in the northern Gaza Strip and entered Israel near the community of Nahal Oz. It’s the fifth such Hamas tunnel Israel has destroyed in as many months.


Conricus said the tunnel was adjacent to the site of Gaza protests, which Israel says Hamas is using as a cover for attacks.

Conricus said Hamas began building the tunnel after the 2014 war. Israel has placed a high priority on halting the tunnel threat since Hamas infiltrated Israel during the war.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this was the longest and deepest tunnel Israel has discovered thus far.

‘‘It’s a tunnel that cost millions of dollars to dig, money that instead of going to ease the hardship of Gaza’s residents has sunk in the sand,’’ he said. Hamas had no immediate comment.

The Arab League summit this year follows an operation Saturday in which the United States, Britain, and France launched dozens of missile strikes at sites they said were linked to a Syrian chemical weapons program.


President Bashar Assad and his close ally, Russia, have denied government forces ever used chemical weapons.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said Assad’s government and ‘‘international players trying to achieve their own strategic political goals’’ bear responsibility for the crisis there.

‘‘Regional interference in Arab affairs has reached an unprecedented degree. And first of these is the Iranian interference, the aim of which is not for the well-being of the Arabs or their interests,’’ he said.

The Saudi monarch made no reference to Syria in his remarks before Arab leaders amid divisions within the Arab League over support for the US-led airstrikes on Syria. The kingdom, as well as Bahrain and Qatar, have issued statements backing Saturday’s strikes on military targets in Syria. More wary of the widening conflict are countries like Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon.

A final statement by the 22 member states refrained from supporting or criticizing those strikes. The league said it condemns the use of chemical weapons, but did not lay direct blame on any one party.

Assad was not invited to the summit, though most heads of state from across the Middle East and North Africa attended the Arab League meeting, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

At the start of the summit, Aboul-Gheit lamented a lack of consensus among Arab states on regional security.

‘‘The crises burning in some corners of the Arab world today . . . cast a shadow over the safety and security over the entire region,’’ Aboul-Gheit said. ‘‘These take a toll on the national security of all of us.’’

Instead, Arab heads of state stressed unity and unwavering support for Palestinians. King Salman reiterated Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the US decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Despite the monarch’s stern words, Saudi Arabia has strengthened ties with Washington under the Trump administration.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir defended those ties, saying ‘‘there is no contradiction’’ with having very strong strategic ties with the US while advising against certain policies.

‘‘The fact that we have very strong ties with the US over history, and the Trump administration in particular, is a positive factor, not a negative factor in trying to help guide them towards a positive engagement in the Middle East,’’ al-Jubeir told reporters after the summit.

The strongest criticism of the Trump administration came from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. ‘‘The decisions have made the United States a party to the conflict and not a neutral mediator,’’ he said.

Saudi tensions with neighboring Qatar were on display at the summit. Qatar’s emir was not in attendance, instead dispatching his country’s Arab League representative to the meeting.

Tensions erupted nearly a year ago when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties with Qatar and imposed a de facto blockade on the small Gulf state. The four accuse Qatar of sponsoring terrorism because of its support for Islamist opposition groups in the region and its warm relations with Iran. Qatar denies the allegations.