International Leadership in the Palestinian Cause: This is Not Sunni vs. Shi’a or Arab vs. Non-Arab

The Palestinian people must not be used to fuel secondary and unnecessary arguments. The focus must be on Palestine.

With Israel’s neighbor’s and near-neighbors all clamoring to denounce Israel’s attack of the aid Flotilla and to help lift the Gaza blockade, many political pundits are asking, who is leading the charge?  Traditionally, Turkey has stayed out of the issue, Arabs have been confused or indifferent and Iran and Hezbollah have held up the Palestinian banner.  Has Turkey taken Iran’s crown as the international champion of the Palestinian cause?  Has it supported Palestine in the name of Sunnis or as a non-Arab leader in the region?  Are Iran and Hezbollah attempting to join the Flotilla parade to wrestle control back to Shi’a leadership?  Is Egypt poised to bring the Palestinian cause back to the Arab people?  Despite the articles and hypotheses written on the topic, it ultimately does not matter what country, ethnicity or religious sect is leading the cause as long as it is aimed at promoting Palestine’s right.

There has been a lot written about the Turkish response to Israel’s raid of the aid Flotilla that killed nine Turkish citizens.  Ankara is clearly very upset with its one time good ally and has threatened everything from breaking diplomatic relations to sending in the Turkish navy.  Iran and Hezbollah, the other traditional champions of the Palestinian cause, have since called for further aid ships to challenge the blockade and have used the opportunity to point to the Flotilla as a harbinger of the inevitable destruction of Israel and the liberation of Palestine.

[tweetmeme] Furthermore, the international anger over Gaza has not escaped Egypt who has indefinitely opened the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza (which has been closed in conjunction with the Israeli blockade).  The decision to strip those Egyptians married to Israelis of their Egyptian citizenship demonstrates an attempt by the Egyptian government to placate the anger Egyptian public without severely damaging its lucrative ties with Israel.

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed has written in Asharq Alawsat that the Turkish leadership through the Flotilla disaster has directly challenged Iran’s role in the region and, importantly, that Turkey’s push has been welcomed around the Arab world as an alternative to the Persians.  Al-Rashed argues that Arab regimes are wary of Iran as a Machiavellian state using the Palestinian cause to strengthen its Lebanese partner in Hezbollah and to export its political vision that is ‘hostile’ to Arab interests.  Turkey’s rise started when PM Erdogan castigated Israeli President at Davos over the Israeli siege of Gaza during Cast Lead. continued with the Turkish efforts to mediate a nuclear settlement between Iran and the west and has been cemented by the harsh rhetoric surrounding the Flotilla.

Thus, argues Al-Rashed, Turkey’s rise to prominence in the region has come at the expense of Iran (though he does briefly mention the possibility that Turkey is acting as an Iranian partner, not competitor).  So, Al-Rashed thinks, Sunni Turks have taken over the role of primary Palestinian backer from the Shi’ite Persians.

Tariq Alhomayed pushes this line of reasoning in his editorial in the same paper.  Turkey’s rise has coincided with the rise of the Sunni AKP ruling party.  Moreover, Turkey is simply filling the leadership void created when the Shi’a powers in Lebanon and Iran started to lose power in the region.  For both Alhomayed and Al-Rashed, Turkey’s response to Israel and its efforts to back Palestinian rights are simply a continuation of the Sunni-Shi’a international struggle for regional leadership.  Both authors assume and imply that the Palestinian cause and the rights of Palestinians (particularly in Gaza) are only pawns in the greater strategic sectarian battle.

In Dar Al-Hayat Raghida Dergham tries to describe the Flotilla and the rising Turkish power in context of an ongoing Arab vs. non-Arab battle for regional dominance (in addition to reiterating the Sunni-Shi’a argument).  Dergham writes that “Turkey decided to reclaim the Palestinian cause from Shiite Iranian confiscation for the sake of the Sunni leadership” and that the battle for the leadership of the Palestinian cause remains between Turkey and Iran, until the day comes when the Arabs [mainly Egypt] will awaken from their deep slumber.”

Disregarding Dergham’s attempt to portray the Palestinian cause through two separate and distinct lenses (Sunni vs. Shi’a and Arab vs. non-Arab), observers must note that the politicization of the Palestinian cause that is demonstrated in these three articles only works to the detriment of the Palestinians themselves.

Certainly, Iran and Hezbollah’s recent calls for future aid flotillas have been framed in a more anti-Israel than a pro-Palestinian way and Turkey’s response to the Flotilla has been driven mainly by its need to protect its own citizens and rights.  However, the fact is that the Israeli attack on the aid convoy has brought international attention to the Palestinian struggle and the immoral blockade of Gaza.  By focusing on Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah, focus is being taken away from the real issue: Palestine.

In the post-Nasser world, Arabs and the Middle East in general has lacked a true leader to unit the region and it is clear that many pine for such a leader to appear.  While a united Middle East certainly has its advantages, the debate over the leader of the region should remain separate and secondary to the Palestinian struggle.  The international attention on Palestine and the collective sympathy that is pouring in from around the world must not be misused.  Make no mistake, the results of the Flotilla attack are now a powerful political weapon for the pro-Palestinian community and it must be used wisely.  The current international solidarity must not be hijacked by radical anti-Semites or by sectarians trying to delegitimize another people or religion.  The world is beginning to open its eyes to the unjust realities in Palestine.  Do not try to distract the international community with confusion of the issue.

Palestine.  The Occupation.  The collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza.

These are not Sunni/Shi’a issues.  Nor are they Arab/non-Arab issues.  They are part of a struggle to establish a state for a people and lift a people out of occupation; they are part of an international effort to stop death, destruction and dehumanization.  Focusing on anything else only relegates, once again, Palestinians to a second-rate cause.

Photo from Tokafi

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