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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Gaza And BRICS: Arab Leaders' Visit To China Is Only The Beginning

Frustrated by the United States’ unwavering support for Israel’s war on Gaza, Arab governments have looked at other options to help establish a ceasefire before it becomes too late. First stop: Beijing. Moscow’s role may be more obscure, but no less essential, in building a global coalition that counters the West’s stance.

Group photo of ​Arab leaders' visit to Beijing, China, on Nov. 20

Arab leaders' visit to Beijing, China, on Nov. 20

Elias Kassem

CAIRO — Call it “the China option.”

The scene Monday in Beijing said a lot, both about the state of the war in Gaza, and the world at large: top diplomats of five Arab countries, all with close ties with the U.S., arrived in the Chinese capital to meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as part of Arab and Islamic diplomatic efforts to rally global support for a ceasefire.

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Choosing Beijing as the first stop of a tour to the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council shows China’s growing role in the Middle East amid global power competition. It also shows regional frustration from the West’s justification of Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians as “a self-defense,” according to Asharq, a United Arab Emirates-based news outlet.

“Motivating the major countries in the East to play a more effective and influential role may restore balance to the international scene,” wrote Gamal Raif, an Egyptian journalist and political writer, on X, formerly known as Twitter. “China in particular has been seeking for some time to find new workspaces within the international arena.”

The delegation included foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Indonesia, the Palestinian Authority, and the chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Other sources of geopolitical power

The meeting was chaired by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, who called for an immediate ceasefire and the entry of humanitarian and relief aid to Gaza, according to the Saudi foreign ministry.

“There are still dangerous developments ahead of us and an urgent humanitarian crisis that requires an international mobilization to deal with and counter it,” he said.

The Arab delegation is focusing its efforts now on other sources of geopolitical power.

Rather than more futile talks with Israel and the U.S. about the war, the Arab delegation is focusing its efforts now on other sources of geopolitical power. Indeed, on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to attend the BRICS extraordinary virtual summit on the Palestinian-Israeli issue and deliver public remarks in Beijing, according to Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying.

Sources also say the Arab foreign ministers may head next to Moscow to continue the efforts to leave the West risking further isolation on its approach to the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen the reigniting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a way to divert global attention from the war in Ukraine.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, another BRICS member, has been particularly outspoken in his condemnation of Israel’s war. Last week, he accused Israel of "killing innocent people without any criteria" in Gaza, which he said were "as grave" as the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

Photo of a large square table showing Chinese Vice President Han Zheng meeting with a delegation of Arab foreign ministers in Beijing on Nov. 20.

Chinese Vice President Han Zheng meeting with a delegation of Arab foreign ministers in Beijing on Nov. 20.

Zhang Ling/Xinhua/ZUMA

China's support for Palestine

In Beijing on Monday, the Arab and Muslim delegation denounced the war waged by Israel "against the concept of the two-state solution and against the mere existence of the Palestinians on the land of the State of Palestine," a Saudi statement said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Arab and Islamic governments are calling for a “stronger role” from the great powers, including China to stop the war, according to a statement from the Egyptian foreign ministry.

“Unfortunately, some parties do not call the blatant Israeli violations and war crimes by their true description,” Shoukry said, “there are major countries that give cover to the current Israeli attacks.” He was apparently referring to the U.S. administration and European governments.

The Egyptian diplomat said Arab and Islamic governments are calling for a “stronger role” from the great powers, including China to stop the war, according to a statement from the Egyptian foreign ministry.

Speaking at the meeting, the Chinese foreign minister expressed his country’s support for an immediate cessation of fighting, saying: "A ceasefire is no longer a diplomatic rhetoric, but a matter of life and death for the people of Gaza."

Wang Yi described China as a "good friend” of Arab and Islamic countries, and said that China has always supported the just cause of restoring the rights and interests of Palestinian people. Wang Yi also noted that he “fully supports” the summit’s goals to promote a ceasefire, protect civilians, and implement a two-state plan.

Wang also said China opposes “any forced displacement and relocation of Palestinian civilians,” adding that, “Israel should stop the collective punishment of the people of Gaza and open a humanitarian corridor as soon as possible to prevent a wider humanitarian disaster.”

He said China, as the rotating chair of the Security Council, would continue to bolster coordination with Arab and Islamic countries and “promote the Security Council to take further meaningful actions on the situation in Gaza."

"The United Nations Security Council must listen to the calls of Arab and Islamic countries and take responsible actions to cool down the situation," he said.

According to Singapore-based Zaobao, many analysts believe that China still seeks to maintain good relations with its important economic and trade partner Israel, while still trying to establish a leading role in developing countries, including being a voice for Palestine. China has slightly hardened its attitude towards Israel over the past month, yet it continues to be cautious on its stance.

Many also believe that the reason for the Arab leaders starting their journey in Beijing is to put “pressure” on the United States, and the West, as they remain having a firmer stance on supporting Israel, according to Chinese daily See Hua. Arab leaders seek China’s support in putting this pressure on the West.

An opportunity

Israel has imposed a total siege on Gaza’s over 2.3 million people following Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Oct. 7. It also cut off water, electricity and fuel, measures further deteriorated the already dire humanitarian situation in the strip.

Israeli officials have also repeatedly pushed for relocating more than 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, or other nations.

This is an opportunity for those who say they support the Palestinian people to show these are not just empty words.

In an opinion article published Sunday in the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel claimed that “some world leaders are already discussing a worldwide refugee resettlement scheme and saying they would welcome Gazans to their countries.”

“This is an opportunity for those who say they support the Palestinian people to show these are not just empty words,” said Gamliel, whose ministry crafted a proposal early in the war to relocate Gaza residents in Sinai.

The displacement of Palestinians, even inside Gaza, has been vehemently rejected by Cairo and other Arab capitals. Shoukry, the Egyptian diplomat, said such a displacement scheme is a “redline,” that “would threaten peace, security, and stability in the region and the world.”

China has grown active in the region’s politics in recent years, and in March It brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in which both Riyadh and Tehran restored diplomatic ties after seven years of military and diplomatic hostility.

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