Arab leaders condemned Israel’s two-week-old bombardment of Gaza on Saturday at a gathering of Western and other leaders and demanded renewed efforts to end a decades-long cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
They were addressing a hastily arranged gathering dubbed the Cairo Peace Summit that included leaders and foreign ministers from Europe, Africa and beyond. But a senior European Union official said earlier it was unclear if any common declaration would be reached given “differences” between the participants.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally and a vital player in all past efforts towards peace in the region, only sent the charge d’affaires of its embassy in Cairo, as a conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza rages.
Jordan’s King Abdullah denounced what he termed global silence about Israel’s attacks, which have killed thousands in Hamas-ruled Gaza and made over a million homeless, and urged an even-handed 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.
“The Israeli leadership must realise once and for all that a state can never thrive if it is built on a foundation of injustice … Our message to the Israelis should be that we want a future of peace and security for you and the Palestinians.”
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.
Israel has vowed to wipe the Iranian-backed Hamas militant group “off the face of the earth” over a shock Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel that killed 1,400 people, 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 Cairo gathering was looking into ways to head off a wider regional war. But three diplomats said it was unlikely there would be a joint statement because of sensitivities around any calls for a ceasefire, and whether to include mention of Hamas’s attack and Israel’s right to defend itself.
The absence of some Western leaders has cooled expectations for what the event can achieve. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron were not attending.
The summit coincides with continuing Israeli preparations for a ground assault on Gaza. More than 4,100 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s counteroffensive, amid a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Arab countries have voiced anger at Israel’s unprecedented bombardment and siege of Gaza, home to 2.3 million people and one of the most densely populated places on earth.
In his speech Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country opposed what he called the displacement of Palestinians into Egypt’s largely desert Sinai region.
“Egypt says the solution to the Palestinian issue is not displacement, its only solution is justice and the Palestinians’ access to legitimate rights and living in an independent state.”
King Abdullah said forced displacement “is a war crime according to international law, and a red line for all of us.”
Egypt is wary of 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.
Egypt’s position reflects Arab fears that Palestinians could again flee or be forced from their homes en masse, as they were during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
Jordan, home to a large population of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, fears that a wider conflagration would give Israel the chance to implement a transfer policy to expel Palestinians en masse from the West Bank.
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.