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Foreign leaders gathered in Riyadh on Saturday for a combined summit of the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Co-operation roundly condemned Israel's massive bombardment of Gaza, which has killed well over 10,000 civilians, calling for an immediate end to the war.
But stark differences have emerged between the majority of leaders calling for a renewed international peace efforts and longer-term talks on the conflict, and Iran, whose President Ebrahim Raisi called on Arab countries to “arm the Palestinian people.”
Overnight, leaders including Syria’s Bashar Al Assad, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad arrived in the capital city, where they met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before Saturday’s emergency summit.
Prince Mohammed harshly criticised the western world in his opening speech, calling out what he called “double standards” after the failure of the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution on ending Israel’s war on Gaza.
The UN General Assembly has passed a resolution calling for a “sustained humanitarian truce” but only the Security Council can pass resolutions that are meant to be legally binding.
“We reject the war on Gaza and we call to end the siege on Gaza and allow humanitarian aid,” the Saudi Crown Prince said.
Separately, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit also criticised Israel during his speech.
“Israel's extremist forces, with their sick imagination, do not want to give up their wishes for a new deportation, which will not be achieved and we will not enable them to achieve their fascist wishes,” he told the summit.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn controversy for allying with far-right Israeli politicians who strongly support expanded settlement construction in occupied territory.
“All the talk about dealing with the security of the Gaza Strip without talking about a political solution and without a mechanism to implement this solution is a waste of time and would bring things back to square one. I see a need for an international peace conference,” Mr Aboul Gheit said.
Jordan's King Abdullah focused on Israel's complete blockade of Gaza, saying Amman rejected “the mentality that wants to turn the Gaza Strip into an unviable place … The injustice inflicted on our Palestinian brothers is proof of the failure of the international community to do justice to them and guarantee their rights to dignity, self-determination and the establishment of their state.”
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi also spoke on Saturday, saying there was “a responsibility before God towards what is happening in Gaza. The United States is Israel's partner in its crimes. The United States practically entered the war in favour of Israel.”
He said: “Islamic countries should arm Palestinian people.”
Tehran and Washington have been sworn enemies since the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran, a US ally, and installed a theocratic government.
Foreign ministers met separately to set out a version of the draft resolution that was due to be read out in the early afternoon, following leaders' speeches.
Earlier on Saturday, Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary general of the Arab League, confirmed that the emergency summit would address many issues, including an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, rejection of the idea of displacing Palestinians from Gaza, and the entry of humanitarian aid, as well as the wider Israel-Palestine conflict.
“There is a consensus among the members of the Arab League in their complete rejection of the idea of displacing the Palestinians. There are high-level political decisions that will be taken by members of the Arab League, and the secretary general of the league must take over the implementation mechanism after that,” Mr Zaki said.
While he did not specify what the political decisions would entail, the final communique of Saturday’s summit is expected to spell out short-term measures for the conflict that would address humanitarian issues, rather than political solutions, diplomatic sources told The National in Riyadh.
The diplomatic sources confirmed that a draft resolution worked on overnight on the Gaza crisis did not yet have a majority consensus.
Member states disagreed on several clauses that the presidency, Saudi Arabia, insisted be included during intensive talks from the Arab League’s 22 members. Eleven members voted for that resolution while four voted against while the rest abstained.
Saudi Foreign Ministry sources said one combined resolution and final communique would be announced at the end of the summit tonight, mainly focused on short-term goals while the main clause would focus on the creation of a multilateral Arab committee led by Mr Aboul Gheit.
He would have the responsibility of representing the Arab world’s collective position in talks with the US and the western world in the coming weeks.
On October 7, Hamas gunmen stormed across the heavily militarised border from the Gaza Strip to kill more than 1,200 people in southern Israel and take around 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israel, vowing to destroy Hamas, retaliated with an aerial bombing and ground offensive that the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said has killed more than 11,000 people, nearly half of them children.
Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally holds the presidency this year of both the Arab League and the OIC, had been aiming to organise emergency meetings over the weekend to exert influence on the US, Israel’s close ally.
The US in the months before the October 7 attacks had been working towards mediating a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“The Saudi ruling elite and officials always say that they’re not against normalisation but many people are misreading. What they’re actually saying is they’re entertaining the process of normalisation and the Saudis like to stay in this preferred zone,” Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst who researches his country’s foreign policy regarding Israel, told The National.
“Usually, when the Saudis talk about normalisation with Israel, it is often predicated on some concessions on the Palestinian issue along with what the US is going to offer.
Opening the Saudi-African summit on Friday, Prince Mohammed denounced the conduct of Israeli forces fighting Hamas in Gaza, in his first publicly televised comments on the war.
“We condemn the military aggression witnessed in the Gaza Strip, the targeting of civilians, and the continued violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli occupation forces,” he said.
The summit in Riyadh marks the 51st such event in 77 years. Since the Arab League’s inception, 32 regular summits have been held while 15 were emergency summits, including Saturday’s meeting.