November 21, 2023
NEW DELHI – An extraordinary Islamic-Arab summit was held in Riyadh to discuss the Israel-Hamas war on 11 November. It was attended by mainly heads of state of the Arab League and OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation). It was initially planned for the two groups to meet separately but subsequently they met as one, mainly due to disagreements arising within the Arab League. On its part, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, urged the Arab world to ‘stand up to Hamas,’ mentioning that it has only ‘brought two things to Gaza – poverty and blood.’ An official Saudi press release mentioned that the intent of the summit was to arrive at “a unified collective position that expresses the common Arab and Islamic will regarding the dangerous and unprecedented developments witnessed in Gaza and Palestinian territories.”
The attendance of the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, emphasised this aspect. A communique released after the summit mentioned that the summit condemned, “Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, war crimes and barbaric and inhumane massacres by the occupation government.” It also called for an end to the siege of Gaza, permitting humanitarian aid and halting arms exports to Israel. The summit also rejected Israeli claims of acting in self-defence. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the two terrorist groups currently engaged in a conflict with Israel, mentioned that they did not expect much from the summit. Mohammad al-Hindi, the Islamic Jihad’s deputy secretary general stated, “We are not placing our hopes on such meetings, for we have seen their results over many years.
The fact that this conference will be held after 35 days (of war) is an indication of its outcomes.” Unity in terms of adopting a firmer approach including halting oil supplies to Israel and its allies as also severing diplomatic and economic ties, which some member nations have with Israel, was rejected. Inputs mention that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, Mauritania and Djibouti refused to endorse these proposals. Largely, objections have been on the concept of mass punishment imposed by Israel.
There are many Arab states which consider Hamas and the Hezbollah as stumbling blocks to peace in the region and would prefer their collapse, while others like Iran and Qatar support them. The Hezbollah is far more powerful than the nation where it is based, Lebanon. The Houthis, another terrorist group which members desire to eradicate, launched missiles on US bases in the region and Israel and had earlier been involved in similar actions on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
There are some countries like Pakistan which refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist, basically on illogical grounds of religion, while secretly selling them 155mm ammunition. Pakistan takes its stance to an extreme when it attempts to place Gaza and Kashmir on a similar plane. An editorial in the Dawn newspaper of Pakistan mentioned on the joint statement issued at the end of the summit that “their inaction virtually makes these countries abettors in the mass killings being carried out by the Zionist forces in Gaza.” While nations expressed concerns on increased civilian casualties, none are willing to accept refugees from Gaza.
Globally, the largest public protests against Israel have happened in democratic Western nations. Some Islamic nations have diplomatic and economic ties with Israel, while its immediate neighbours have signed peace agreements with it. Hardly any nation has withdrawn its diplomats from Israel, while Tel Aviv has done so wherever its staff have faced threats. Thus, while there are objections to Israel’s adopted methodology, nations accept that the trigger for the current war is Hamas and its actions.
Azerbaijan, a member of the OIC, imports more than 60 per cent of its weapons from Israel and hence would never join any anti-Israel grouping. Few Islamic nations have close ties with the US and thus would avoid going against US interests, which implies maintaining neutrality, while pushing for humanitarian action. Qatar is leading negotiations for a ceasefire which could result in release of hostages in exchange for movement of aid. Hence, while Israel was criticized and the summit demanded humanitarian aid, there were no indications of harsher measures flowing in the future.
This displayed that most nations preferred a practical approach to the crisis, rather than a religious or emotional one, as was the norm earlier. Possibly the criticism from Justin Trudeau of Canada who urged Israel to stop ‘this killing of women, of children, of babies,’ adding, ‘the price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians,’ was firmer than that issued at the end of the summit. The final outcome conveyed that a majority of Islamic nations seek the end of Hamas as a pre-requisite for a resolution to the Palestinian problem, which could be a two-state solution. Further, within West Asia, Arab nations retaliating to terrorist attacks on their soil have killed far more innocent Muslims than Israel has in Gaza, Yemen and Syria being examples. While Palestinians may feel they are being ignored, the message sent is that the Arab world is against the Hamas and not Gazans.
On the contrary, based on pressure from Pakistan, the OIC regularly mentions Kashmir in joint statements, while for Arab states, Kashmir has no value. OIC members are aware that a mere mention of Kashmir cannot change realities, while within Pakistan, it plays on domestic sentiment. Simultaneously, the world is aware that China is suppressing its largely Muslim Uighur population by jailing them in re-education camps, destroying their places of worship and forcing them to act against their religion. Inputs, including videos, depicting their plight, have regularly surfaced. Not a single Muslim nation has criticized China, while Western nations have taken it to task.
Some like Pakistan have officially backed China in its actions. Overall, the message conveyed post the joint Arab-OIC summit is that most Islamic nations do not consider religion to be a major factor in their foreign policy, rather act solely in their national interest. It also suggests that the world is moving away from confrontation to collaboration, as an acceptance that all have a right to exist. Terrorism, irrespective of what it represents, is unacceptable, whether it be in the Middle East or South Asia. This is the changing geopolitical landscape.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)