CAIRO, Egypt – Arab foreign ministers met Saturday to discuss ways of strengthening their response to an Israeli military offensive amid calls from Iraq and Iran to cut off oil supplies to Israel's allies.
The Arab League ministerial meeting came after a week of daily protests against Israel and the United States, the likes of which the Arab world has rarely seen. Jordanian demonstrators beat up riot police in Amman on Saturday while Bahraini protesters set fire to a sentry box and satellite dish in the U.S. Embassy compound in Manama.
Addressing the opening session, Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath compared the actions of Israel's troops in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus to the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israeli-allied militiamen in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon.
Shaath said President Bush showed a "limited change" in U.S. foreign policy in a speech on Thursday and said this shift stemmed from the "courageous Palestinian resistance" to Israel and Arab support.
In his speech, Bush called on Israel to withdraw from the six Palestinian towns and cities it has occupied, and he announced he was sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. He also said Israeli troops should "show a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people."
The Palestinians have said Powell must meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been confined to his offices by Israeli troops, or his trip next week would be boycotted by the Palestinians.
"Powell will not meet a single Palestinian" if he does not meet Arafat, Shaath said. He called upon Arab governments to "refuse to meet him (Powell) in any Arab capital" if Powell did not visit the Palestinian leader. U.S. officials said Friday that Powell had no plans to meet Arafat.
Shaath urged the Arab community to make "use of its pressure cards, and there are many cards" – an apparent reference to the proposal, first proposed by Iraq, to cut off oil supplies.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came out Friday in support of the Iraqi proposal.
"I suggest, only for one month, as a symbolic gesture, that Arab and Islamic countries switch off oil to all countries who have close relations with Israel," Khamenei said in a Friday sermon in Tehran.
Two other oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have spoken out against using oil as an instrument of foreign policy. A Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry official told The Associated Press on Saturday that such proposals were illogical.
"To help (the Palestinians), we have to have income," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, support for a cutback came from a newspaper in a fifth oil producer, the United Arab Emirates, on Saturday.
"The time has come to stop talking and start action ... time now to reflect upon the success of the oil embargo of 1973," said an editorial in the English-language Gulf News. "It is time to use it again. Then, perhaps, the international community will once again listen to the voices of the Arab peoples."
The Syrian and Lebanese foreign ministers did not attend the meeting, allowing their countries to be represented by their permanent representatives to the league. Neither minister explained his absence, but the official Syrian news agency indicated it was a protest against Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania's refusal to break relations with Israel.