Arab leaders and Iran’s president are meeting in the Saudi capital on Saturday for a summit aimed at underscoring demands that Israel’s war in Gaza end before violence spreads to other countries.
The emergency meetings of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation come after bloody attacks by Hamas militants on October 7, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 239 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.
According to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, Israel’s subsequent air and ground offensive killed more than 11,000 people, mostly civilians and many of them children.
Aid organizations are calling for a ceasefire and warning of a humanitarian “catastrophe” in Gaza, where there is a shortage of food, water and medicine.
The Arab League wants to show “how Arabs will act on the international stage to stop aggression, support Palestine and its people, condemn the Israeli occupation and hold them accountable for their crimes,” said the deputy secretary general of the bloc, Hossam Zaki, said this week.
But the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad said on Friday it expected “nothing” from the meeting and criticized Arab leaders for the delay.
“We do not pin our hopes on such meetings because we have seen their results over many years,” Mohammad al-Hindi, the group’s deputy secretary general, said at a news conference in Beirut.
“The fact that this conference will take place after 35 days (of war) is an indication of its results.”
Israel and its main backer, the United States, have so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, a position that is expected to draw strong criticism at meetings on Saturday.
A united “diplomatic front … will generate diplomatic pressure from Arab and Muslim states,” said Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian.
Criticism so far from regional leaders suggests “this is not just about Israel-Palestine – it’s about what Israel supports, namely the United States and the West,” he added.
This conflict was highlighted in recent visits to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as a visit to Riyadh this week by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who met with a number of his Arab counterparts who had called for such a ceasefire.
“We have said that the call for a ceasefire is understandable, but we also recognize that Israel is taking measures to ensure its own stability and its own security,” Cleverly said Thursday.
“Of course we want this terrible situation to be resolved as quickly as possible. The immediate challenge is the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. That’s why we’re focusing on that.”
– Raisi to Riyadh –
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s expected attendance at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting will be his first trip to Saudi Arabia since the two Middle East heavyweights agreed a surprise rapprochement in March, ending seven years of separate ties.
Iran supports Hamas as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, making it the focus of fears that the war could spread.
The conflict has already fueled cross-border exchanges between the Israeli army and Hezbollah, and the Houthis have claimed responsibility for “ballistic missiles” that the rebels said targeted southern Israel.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia feels exposed to potential attacks because of its close ties with Washington and the fact that it was considering normalizing ties with Israel before the war broke out.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman condemned “ongoing violations of international humanitarian law by Israeli occupation forces” on Friday, making his first public comments on the war, although Riyadh has made similar criticisms in several statements.
Kim Ghattas, author of a book on the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, said during a panel discussion organized by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington: “The Saudis hope that the fact that they have not yet normalized and the fact that they have a channel to the Iranians gives them some protection.
“And I think the Iranians hope that the fact that they are in contact with the Saudis and maintaining that channel will also give them some protection.”
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