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Thu 15 Jan 2009 06:14 PM

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Arab support slips for Doha summit on Gaza

Qatar's emir insists his invitation still stands; pledges $250mn to aid Gaza.

Support has slipped for a special Arab summit on the Israeli offensive in Gaza proposed to be held in Qatar on Friday, with several countries dropping out after a tug-of-war highlighting Arab divisions.

Qatar's emir insists his invitation still stands, but Arab League official Hesham Youssef said one of the Arab League's 22 members had withdrawn support for the Doha meeting, leaving it short of the 15-state quorum required for official endorsement.

"The invitation to the summit still stands," Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said in a speech carried by state media, in which he also pledged $250 million to help rebuild Gaza.

Sheikh Hamad, whose country has low-level ties with Israel and close ties to Hamas leaders, said the summit should discuss issues including a suspension of an Arab peace initiative, a review of diplomatic and economic ties with Israel, and ways of holding the Jewish state accountable for "war crimes".

With the death toll in Gaza rising above 1,000, the summit plans have underscored deep divisions in the Arab world and risk further undermining the Arab League, already considered by many Arabs to be a toothless body.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both opposed to the Hamas group that rules Gaza, have said they would attend the Jan 19-20 Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait and would discuss the matter, rather than holding a special meeting in Qatar's capital Doha.

Conservative Arab governments are wary of summits at times of crisis because they are reluctant to pass confrontational resolutions which would meet the expectations of public opinion. Egypt, the only Arab state bordering Gaza, has also faced Arab criticism for cooperating in the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Egypt says it will not open the Gaza-Egypt border for normal traffic without the presence of the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces Hamas routed in 2007.

The Kuwait summit would merge discussion of the Gaza issue with the previously scheduled economic agenda.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a Middle East tour aimed at securing a ceasefire in Gaza, is due to address the summit in Kuwait on Monday.

The Arab League has been preparing to hold the Kuwait summit for months to discuss economic issues and had added a special session on Gaza to take place at foreign minister level on Friday. Qatar has argued that the Israeli attacks on Gaza are so grave they justify a separate summit earlier.

Throwing another element into the mix, Saudi Arabia called late on Wednesday for an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders on Thursday to discuss the conflict in Gaza. Youssef said the outcome of that meeting could affect broad Arab summit plans.

The tug-of-war over whether, when and where to hold a summit reflects the Arab divide between Egypt, Saudi and their allies on one side, and Syria, Qatar and their allies on the other.

Syria and Qatar, which recently patched up once-frosty ties with its Saudi neighbour, are more sympathetic toward the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which has borne the brunt of the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Yousef declined to name the country which withdrew its support for the Doha summit but Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters his country was no longer planning to attend the Qatar event as no quorum was reached.

Morocco has said the king would not attend either the Qatari or the Kuwaiti summit.

Both Iraq and Lebanon said they would only attend the Doha meeting if a quorum was reached and Tunisia has said it would not be represented. (Reuters)

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