Saturday, October 21, 2023
Arab leaders attending the Cairo Summit for Peace on Saturday condemned the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, while European nations emphasised the need to protect civilians amid relentless Israeli bombing.
Notably, Israel and high-ranking US officials were absent from the meeting, and as a result, there was no consensus reached on how to contain the ongoing violence.
The summit was initiated and hosted by Egypt, with the hope of gathering support for peace and reigniting efforts to address the long-standing Palestinian quest for statehood.
Unfortunately, the meeting concluded without leaders and foreign ministers agreeing on a joint statement.
This occurred two weeks into a conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands and resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the blockaded Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million people.
Diplomats present at the talks had limited expectations of a breakthrough, as Israel was preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza with the goal of eliminating the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which had launched attacks on Israeli towns on October 7, causing the death of 1,400 people.
According to Gaza's Health Ministry, Israel's airstrikes and missile strikes had, by that point, resulted in the deaths of at least 4,385 Palestinians since the Hamas attack.
While Arab and Muslim nations called for an immediate halt to Israel's offensive, Western countries generally focused on more modest objectives, such as providing humanitarian relief to civilians.
King Abdullah of Jordan decried what he described as global silence regarding Israel's attacks, which had led to the deaths of thousands in Hamas-ruled Gaza and left over a million people homeless. He called for a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The message the Arab world is hearing is that Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones," he said, adding he was outraged and grieved by acts of violence waged against innocent civilians in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians would not be displaced or driven off their land.
"We won't leave, we won't leave," he told the summit.
France called for a humanitarian corridor into Gaza that it said could lead to a ceasefire. Britain and Germany both urged Israel's military to show restraint and Italy said it was important to avoid escalation.
The United States, Israel's closest ally and a vital player in all past peace efforts in the region, only sent its Cairo charge d'affaires who did not address the meeting in public.
European Council President Charles Michel said the main goal of the summit was "to listen to each other".
However, "we understand that we need to work more together" on issues including the humanitarian situation, avoiding a regional escalation and a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, he added.
Israel has vowed to wipe the Iranian-backed Hamas militant group "off the face of the earth" over the shock Oct. 7 assault, the deadliest Palestinian militant attack in Israel's 75-year history.
It has said it told Palestinians to move south within Gaza for their own safety, although the coastal strip is only 45 km (28 miles) long and Israeli air strikes have also hit the south.
The meeting was meant to explore how to head off a wider regional war. But diplomats knew public agreement would be hard because of sensitivities around calls for a ceasefire, whether to include mention of Hamas' attack and Israel's right to defend itself.
Arab states fear the offensive could drive Gaza residents permanently from their homes and even into neighbouring states - as happened when Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war following Israel's creation.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country opposed what he called the displacement of Palestinians into Egypt's largely desert Sinai region, adding the only solution was an independent Palestinian state.
Egypt fears insecurity near the border with Gaza in northeastern Sinai, where it faced an Islamist insurgency that peaked after 2013 and has now largely been suppressed.
Jordan, home to many Palestinian refugees and their descendants, fears a wider conflagration would give Israel the chance to expel Palestinians en masse from the West Bank.
King Abdullah said forced displacement "is a war crime according to international law, and a red line for all of us."
Shortly before the summit opening, trucks loaded with humanitarian aid began entering the Rafah crossing into Gaza. Egypt has been trying for days to channel humanitarian relief to Gaza through the crossing, the one access point not controlled by Israel.