Arab Nations Offer Rare Criticism of Hezbollah
Hassan M. Fattah, The New York Times:
With the battle between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah raging, key Arab governments have taken the rare step of blaming Hezbollah, underscoring in part their growing fear of influence by the group’s main sponsor, Iran.
Saudi Arabia, with Jordan, Egypt and several Persian Gulf states, chastised Hezbollah for “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts” at an emergency Arab League summit meeting in Cairo on Saturday. READ MORE
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said of Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel, “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them.” Prince Faisal spoke at the closed-door meeting but his words were reported to journalists by other delegates.
The meeting ended with participants asserting that the Middle East peace process had failed and requesting help from the United Nations Security Council.
It is nearly unheard of for Arab officials to chastise an Arab group engaged in conflict with Israel, especially as images of destruction by Israeli warplanes are beamed into Arab living rooms. Normally under such circumstances, Arabs are not blamed, and condemnations of Israel are routine.
But the willingness of those governments to defy public opinion in their own countries underscores a shift that is prompted by the growing influence of Iran and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and across the region.
The way some officials see it, Arab analysts said, Israel is the devil they know, but Iran is the growing threat.
“There is a school of thought, led by Saudi Arabia, that believes that Hezbollah is a source of trouble, a protégé of Iran, but also a political instrument in the hands of Iran,” said Adnan Abu Odeh, a Jordanian sociologist. ‘This school says we should not play into the hands of Iran, which has its own agenda, by sympathizing or supporting Hezbollah fighting against the Israelis.”
Hanna Seniora, a Palestinian analyst with the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, lauded the Arab opposition to Hezbollah on Sunday.
“For the first time ever, open criticism was heard from countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan against the unilateral actions carried out by radical organizations, especially Hezbollah of Lebanon,” wrote Mr. Seniora, who favors coexistence with Israel and opposes radical Islam. “It became clear and beyond doubt that the most important Arab countries did not allow their emotions to rule their judgment.”
The willingness of the leading governments to openly defy Arab public opinion, which has raged against Israel’s actions in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, underscores the readjustment of risks Arab governments say they face.
It also reflects pressure from Washington on its Arab allies to stand against Hezbollah’s actions, American officials said. At the Group of 8 summit meeting in Russia, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted with approval that a number of Arab countries had criticized Hezbollah.
That criticism could pressure Hezbollah to give up its weapons. It could also help American efforts to contain Iran.
“Who’s benefiting?” asked a senior official of one of the Arab countries critical of Hezbollah who was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “Definitely not the Arabs or the peace process. But definitely the Iranians are.”
There may be no material proof of Iran’s involvement in the conflict, the senior official added, but all indications point to an Iranian role.
Arab leaders have long been wary fof Iran. But with Iran exercising increased influence in Iraq and stirring the emotions of Arab and Muslim masses frustrated about the occupation of Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and America’s role in the region, fear of Iranian influence has increased.
“You have Hezbollah, a Shiite minority, controlled by Iran, working, and the Iranians are embarrassing the hell out of the Arab governments,” said Riad Kahwaji, managing director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “The peace process has collapsed, the Palestinians are being killed and nothing is being done for them. And here comes Hezbollah, which is actually scoring hits against Israel.”
From its start in 1982, Hezbollah has relied on Iranian support and weapons, and logistical support from Syria. Iran has made no secret of its support for Hezbollah, and in recent months boasted to visiting scholars about providing it with missiles.
Israel has accused Iran of providing Hezbollah with sophisticated weaponry and said Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard has trained guerrillas in Lebanon. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamidreza Assefi, brushed aside the accusations on Sunday. Mr. Assefi denied that Iran had trained guerrillas in Lebanon, and added: “It is not true that we have sent missiles. Hezbollah is capable enough. The Zionist regime is under pressure.”
A number of Lebanese have also publicly complained about Hezbollah, saying its attack on Israeli soldiers last Wednesday was carried out unilaterally and has drawn the country into a conflict it did not seek.
At the Arab summit meeting on Saturday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, lashed back at the critics of Hezbollah, The Associated Press reported, demanding, “How can we come here to discuss the burning situation in Lebanon while others are making statements criticizing the resistance?”
The countries supporting Syria included Yemen, Algeria and Lebanon.
In a speech broadcast on Sunday, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, derided the Arab criticism. “It is clear that they are unable as governments and leaders to do anything,” he said. “The people of the Arab and Islamic world face a historic chance to achieve a historic victory against the Zionist enemy.”
Some in Beirut said they were deeply disappointed in their fellow Arabs. “I am ashamed of the Arabs,” said Omar Ajaq, who with his family escaped the bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs to a shelter in central Beirut. “They are utterly useless. People are now betting on the resistance. We no longer have faith in Arab leaders.”
Reporting for this article was contributed by Nazila Fathi from Tehran, Suha Maayeh fromAmman, Jordan, Mona el-Naggar fromCairo and David E. Sanger fromVermont.