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Arab Countries Uneasy About Recently Opened Relations With Israel Amid Conflict

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Israel is intensifying its attacks on the Gaza Strip. There's been some confusion tonight after the military said it was attacking Gaza with ground troops. It reportedly now has clarified that troops have not entered Gaza itself. Israel's offensive is in response to the more than 1,000 rockets launched at it by militants in Gaza. At least seven people in Israel have been killed, but the deaths are far higher on the Gaza side. Palestinian officials say at least 109 people there, including militants but also women and children, have died. We're going to hear now about the regional view of the conflict. It's being watched closely, especially by those Arab countries that recently opened relations with Israel. Last year, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sudan and then Bahrain normalized relations with Israel. They did that at the urging of the Trump administration. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports on what the unfolding violence means for them now.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: As TV pictures went around the world this week of Israeli police charging the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, saying they were confronting violent protests, many Middle Eastern governments were fierce in their criticism of Israel. But the response of the United Arab Emirates was decidedly muted. The government did eventually call on the Israelis not to, quote, "violate the sanctity of the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque." Bessma Momani, expert in Gulf politics at Canada's University of Waterloo, says...

BESSMA MOMANI: Neither the leader nor the foreign minister nor the major newspapers have really covered much of the death and destruction that's happened in Gaza.

SHERLOCK: That's because the UAE is now walking a diplomatic tightrope between its new relationship with Israel and that with its own citizens and fellow Arab governments. The Emirate made a splash last year when it signed the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords to normalize ties with Israel. Morocco, Sudan and Bahrain all followed. The Palestinians opposed the deals, saying they wanted countries in the region to avoid agreements with Israel until they have an independent state. But the UAE claimed it could use its new relationship with the Israelis to help the Palestinians. Gulf expert Momani says this latest round of violence shows this isn't true.

MOMANI: I think they're unable to really have influence on Israeli politics at the moment. And they look, I think, weak in front of their public, and they look as though they perhaps too hastily kind of decided to side with the Israelis and not exert effort in trying to push the parties towards peace.

SHERLOCK: So the pressure is on Emirati leaders. In a country with limited freedom of expression, some citizens have taken to social media to speak out for the Palestinians. Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University, says for now, this, though, is unlikely to change the government's position.

ABDULKHALEQ ABDULLA: This decision is a long-term decision of strategic thinking. And this escalation, as awkward as it feels for the UAE and the other Abraham Accord countries, I don't think it's going to have a profound impact.

SHERLOCK: The renewed violence is sensitive for Saudi Arabia, too. It didn't sign the Abraham Accords, but it has been quietly building its relationship with Israel. But Saudi Arabia's rivals are using the situation to score points in the regional power struggles. In Qatar, long at odds with Saudi and the UAE, newspapers have labeled those that have normalized relations with Israel traitors.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF CFCF'S "RAINING PATTERNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.