RIYADH/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as Israeli troops shot dead dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza on Monday sparked outrage in much of the Middle East – but virtual silence among Washington’s closest Gulf allies.
In recent years the bitter regional rivalry that pits Shi’ite Iran and its allies against a bloc led by Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has increasingly pushed the decades-old Arab-Israeli struggle into the background.
While Saudi Arabia and its fellow monarchies have previously criticised the embassy decision, they have also welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump’s harder line against Iran, which has cast itself as the guardian of Palestinian rights.
Among many ordinary people in the region, however, there was fury, dismay and bitter resignation at the news that Israeli gunfire had killed at least 43 Palestinians, the highest toll in a single day since protests demanding the right to return to ancestral homes in Israel began on March 30.
“We are against the embassy move because this is our country. They haven’t left us with anything,” said Zeinab, a woman in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh in Lebanon.
“As an Egyptian and an Arab, I feel humiliated,” said Sami Badreddin, 40, a state company employee in Cairo, whose country made peace with Israel in 1978. “They transfer the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem while all the Arabs are silent.”
“Trump hates Muslims and he is showing it every day,” said Salim Hamlaoui, a student at Algiers university.
The United Nations says the status of Jerusalem – captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war – can only be resolved by negotiations. Palestinians want the city as their own capital.
The timing of the embassy’s move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv on the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel, a day Palestinians regard as their “nakba” or “catastrophe”, when they lost their homeland, added insult to injury.
In recent weeks, Israeli forces have shot dead scores of Palestinians in Gaza protesting at the border over the fate of refugees who fled their homes during partition in 1948, including dozens on Monday.
The embassy move encouraged the “massacre carried out by Israeli security forces”, said Turkey’s foreign ministry.
FRIENDS AND FOES
U.S. allies warned the United States it would damage its regional standing after siding with Israel on a fundamental position without a final peace agreement.
President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose ties with its NATO ally have grown increasingly fractious, described the move as “igniting a fire”.
“The United States has chosen to be a part of the problem rather than the solution with its latest step and has lost its mediating role in the peace process,” he said in London.
Lebanon’s Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said the move spelt a “dead-end” for all paths to regional peace.
In Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1993 through a U.S-mediated peace process, protesters near the heavily-defended U.S. Embassy in Amman chanted: “America is the head of the snake. No U.S. embassy on Jordanian soil.”
Egypt, the most populous Arab country and longtime mediator in the peace process, avoided direct criticism of its U.S. ally.
But state-run Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram said in an editorial that the U.S. move was “provocative” and “a dangerous episode in a series that is about to destroy any hope for achieving peace”.
Washington’s foes were predictably scathing.
Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani described Trump’s international policy as “half-baked”.
“The leaders of America and the Zionist regime must understand the message of the protests that violating Palestine and the moving of the capital will not go unanswered,” he added.
In Iraq, Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist and long-time adversary of the United States, who was leading in parliamentary elections with more than half the votes counted on Monday, tweeted: “I hope the divine response will come.”
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite group backed by Iran and seen by the United States as a terrorist group and by Israel as the biggest threat on its border, called the embassy move a “worthless” unilateral step.
Among some people, the dismay was tinged with anger at Arab governments – particularly those of the oil-rich Gulf monarchies – for failing to stop, or even to strongly protest against, the U.S. move.
“The Gulf countries are the source of our misfortune,” said Khalil Moumneh, a Palestinian refugee in Burj al-Barajneh who has spent his whole life in Lebanon.
“This is like Arab rulers are selling a piece of their land,” said Heba, a 32-year-old lawyer in Cairo, carrying her young daughter.
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief who no longer has a formal role, said on television: “America has stood for the rule of law, for justice, for respect of international agreements… and now we see all of that being pushed aside for the sake of internal political calculations.”
He said the move would benefit their shared foe Iran, allowing it “to capitalise on this issue”.
In the southern Yemeni city of Aden, where Gulf states have become embroiled in Yemen’s civil war, Rashad Mohamed, a 55-year-old government employee, said the embassy move “has done a service to extremist groups and Iran”.
Some people accused Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the custodian of its holiest places, of surrendering Palestinian rights for the sake of its alliance with Trump and his tough stand on Iran.
A Saudi foreign ministry statement criticised Israel’s violence against protesters and affirmed its support for Palestinian rights but did not mention the embassy move.
Saudi newspapers and state media also largely ignored the U.S. move, instead focusing on domestic topics such as preparations for women to be allowed to drive from next month.
“We look at our shattered world where we accuse each other of betrayal and of abandoning Palestine, while the truth is we have all abandoned it,” tweeted Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor.