Saudi King calls for end to Palestinian blockade


By Wafa Amr and Andrew Hammond RIYADH, Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah called on Wednesday for an end to the international blockade on the Palestinian people and told a summit of Arab leaders that sectarian violence was driving Iraq towards civil war.

In his speech to Arab heads of state at a two-day meeting in his capital, the king called on Arabs to overcome their disputes and unify to face dangers threatening them in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

“It has become necessary to end the unjust blockade imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so that the peace process can move in an atmosphere far from oppression and force,” the king said.

Saudi Arabia last month brokered a unity government between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas, hoping it would help end a crippling Western blockade imposed after the Islamist group took office over a year ago.

Israel and its U.S. ally have urged countries to cut political and financial support for the Palestinians because Hamas, which leads the government, refuses to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing peace deals. Israel insists it will not release tax money and other aid to Gaza and the West Bank, but some countries have agreed to talk to non-Hamas members of the government and increase aid.

The summit drew a number of world and Muslim leaders who backed the Arab plan for renewed Arab-Israeli peace efforts. “This initiative sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an address, according to an Arabic translation.

The two-day summit comes against a tense regional backdrop, with fears high among Arab leaders that a U.S.-led attack on non-Arab Iran, which has refused to comply with U.N. demands to halt atomic work, could further destabilise their region.

Riyadh, pressed by its ally Washington to show more leadership in the region, has called on Sunni Muslim states to overcome divisions, arguing a united front will help persuade Israel to address Palestinian grievances.

U.S.-allied Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, see the hand of Tehran in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

King Abdullah stressed that Sunni-Shi’ite violence in Iraq threatened the stability of the oil-producing Gulf region.

“In beloved Iraq, blood flows between brothers in the shadow of illegitimate foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism, threatening a civil war,” he said, in unusually strong criticism of the U.S. presence in Iraq from a strong ally.

But his focus was on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which Sunni Arab leaders see as a major cause of violent radicalism in their own countries and threat to regional stability.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa pressed Israel to accept unchanged a 2002 Arab initiative being revived at the summit.