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Arab, Muslim leaders slam Israel, but differ on response

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) receiving Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Riyadh
— Riyadh (AFP)

Arab and Muslim leaders on Saturday condemned Israeli forces' "barbaric" actions in Gaza but declined to approve punitive economic and political steps against the country over its war against Hamas.

The outcome of a joint summit of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in the Saudi capital highlighted regional divisions over how to respond to the war even as fears mount that it could draw in other countries.

The summit took place against a backdrop of widespread anger in the Middle East and beyond over Israel's aerial and ground offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 11,000 people, mostly civilians and many of them children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israel says it has set out to destroy Hamas following the militant group's bloody October 7 attacks that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people, also mostly civilians, and saw about 240 taken hostage.

The final declaration on Saturday rejected Israeli claims that it is acting in "self-defence" and demanded that the United Nations Security Council adopt "a decisive and binding resolution" to halt Israel's "aggression".

It also called for an end to weapons sales to Israel and dismissed any future political resolution to the conflict that would keep Gaza separate from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who before the war was considering establishing formal diplomatic ties with Israel, told the summit he "holds the occupation (Israeli) authorities responsible for the crimes committed against the Palestinian people".

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, on his first trip to Saudi Arabia since the two countries mended ties in March, said Islamic nations should designate the Israeli army a "terrorist organisation" for its conduct in Gaza.

Israel blames Hamas for the high death toll, accusing it of using civilians as "human shields" -- a charge the militant group denies.

- Regional divisions -

The Arab League and the OIC, a 57-member bloc that includes Iran, were originally meant to meet separately.

Arab diplomats told AFP the decision to merge the meetings came after Arab League delegations failed to reach an agreement on a final statement.

Some countries, including Algeria and Lebanon, proposed responding to the devastation in Gaza by threatening to disrupt oil supplies to Israel and its allies as well as severing the economic and diplomatic ties that some Arab League nations have with Israel, the diplomats said.

However, at least three countries -- including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which normalised ties with Israel in 2020 -- rejected the proposal, according to the diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In a televised address Saturday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Arab leaders "have to stand up against Hamas", which he described as "an integral part of the terror axis led by Iran".

In a statement issued from Gaza, Hamas called on summit participants to expel Israeli ambassadors, form a legal commission to try "Israeli war criminals" and create a reconstruction fund for the territory.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said a lack of concrete punitive measures against Israel would render the summit toothless.

"If we do not have real tools for pressure, then any step we take or speech we give will have no meaning," said Assad, who was welcomed back into the Arab fold this year after an extended rift over his country's civil war.

He said no Middle Eastern country should engage in any "political process" with Israel, including developing economic relations, until a lasting ceasefire is reached.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (2ndR) alongside Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Riyadh

Israel and its main backer the United States have so far rebuffed demands for a ceasefire, a position that drew heavy criticism on Saturday.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said "it is a shame that Western countries, which always talk about human rights and freedoms, remain silent in the face of the ongoing massacres in Palestine".

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, similarly decried "double standards" in the world's response to the war, saying Israel was getting a pass on violations of international law.

- Iran president in Riyadh -

The lack of consensus at the summit was no big surprise, said Rabha Saif Allam, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Cairo Center for Strategic Studies.

Differences between Washington's Arab allies and countries closer to Iran "can't be erased overnight", Allam said.

Raisi's stop in Riyadh made him the first Iranian president to set foot in Saudi Arabia since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended an OIC meeting in the kingdom in 2012.

In addition to addressing the summit, he held a face-to-face meeting with Prince Mohammed, Saudi state media said on X, formerly Twitter.

Iran backs Hamas as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Huthi rebels, placing it at the centre of concerns the war could expand.

The conflict has already fuelled cross-border exchanges between the Israeli army and Hezbollah, and the Huthis have claimed responsibility for "ballistic missiles" the rebels said targeted southern Israel.