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BEIRUT — In his workshop in suburban Beirut, Reef Hammoudi has been painting Israeli and American flags at the rate of 50 a day, so high is the demand from people demonstrating in support of the new Palestinian “intifada.” He does them on nonabsorbant cloth just an hour or so before they are due for ritual burning because, he says, “I can’t stand them in my shop and they disgust my clients.”

Lebanon is usually the most eloquent sounding-board of Arab and Muslim emotions. True to form, it was the first to react to Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon’s provocation at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the tumult that followed it, with those twin villains, Israel and the United States, more tightly linked than ever as the target of the demonstrators’ wrath.

But this time it was far from alone. The protests sweeping the Arab world these past few days are by far the most widespread for many years.

In Egypt, university students have staged daily protest marches and sit-ins for a week now. In mid-week, secondary school students joined the fray. Some demonstrations, liked those in Baghdad, were state-sponsored. But most were spontaneous, like one in tightly-controlled Syria, where 4,000 people stoned the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy, scaled its walls and tore down its flag, chanting “Jerusalem is ours,” “Down with America, Down with Israel.” There have also been demonstrations in Tunis, Sudan, Libya, Morocco and Jordan.

But most strikingly, the protests have also spread to the Persian Gulf, where there is little tradition of street protest. In Oman, a huge throng of students carried anti-Israeli and anti-American banners and shouted “with our souls and blood we shall redeem you, al-Aqsa.” They demanded the closure of the Israeli trade mission in their country. In the United Arab Emirates, school girls in Palestinian dresses walked side by side with young men in local headgear and white “dishdashas.” The protests reached even into Saudi Arabia, heartland of arch-conservative authoritarianism; thousands took to the streets of Sakakah in the kingdom’s remote north, burning Israeli and American flags.

There is often a religious flavor to the outrage, be it Mohammad Tantawi, sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, decreeing — in the name of establishment Islam — that “force must be our only weapon to confront Israel,” or the 55 personalities, from Malaysia to Morocco, who — in the name of militant, fundamentalist Islam — have issued a joint declaration proclaiming that Israel’s arrogance would never have reached the dimension it did were it not for the “Arab submissiveness and willingness to give in, instead of pursuing the path of the intifada, resistance and struggle to liberate the land of Palestine.”

But patriotism — instinctive fellow-feeling with Palestinian compatriots — is very much present, too. It all testifies to the abiding centrality of Palestine in Arab politics and psychology. Yet, though this may have been the most impressive such outpouring of solidarity for a long time, the fact is that the same thing has been seen time and time again.

And time and again, emotion has never translated into serious action. Palestine may be a great rallying cry, but, to many Arabs, it is also a badge of shame, a prime symptom of weakness and disarray, of the rottenness and corruption of an Arab world once again reminded by the spectacle of Palestinian youths dying in unequal combat that, for all its wealth, numbers and geographic immensity, it is quite unable to anything to counter Israel’s Draconian use of force.

The anathemas heaped on Israel and America may be genuinely felt, but, beneath them, lies another, perhaps more significant emotion: self-disgust, a profound exasperation with Arab impotence and, above all, with the regimes that are the chief expression of it. That emotion has long been an intrinsic part of the contemporary Arab condition, but it always breaks surface on occasions like this, not so much in the demonstrations, as in the lamentations of the Arab media.

The fate of Mohammad Durra, the 12-year-old boy shot to death on the world’s television screens, had a very special resonance for the Arabs. Like other others, a Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that not just Israeli soldiers, the Arabs themselves, had the child’s blood on their hands. “Do you remember,” she asked, “TV footage of Israeli soldiers breaking the bones of Palestinian youth during the intifada a few years back? Didn’t we fume and revolt and threaten? What happened afterward? Nothing. Didn’t the sight of Mohammad appall each one of us, officials and ordinary citizens alike? What will happen now? Nothing. Look what happened to oil prices. They (the West) made their views known openly, taking no heed of our reaction because they knew there would be none. Mohammad was killed before our eyes, his blood shed in full view of the world. Where they are concerned there is no difference between the price of his blood and that of a barrel of oil — both are dirt cheap. But they’re not to blame. We are because we sell ourselves cheap.”

If, as now seems likely, the Arab leaders do finally manage to convene a summit conference to deal with the crisis, will it yield any results? Arab commentators are skeptical. “What Arab leaders should realize,” said Egyptian columnist Sayyid Zahra, “is that the Arab peoples have reached boiling point, and hold them responsible for the miserable condition to which we have sunk in confronting the Israeli terror. Condemnation, denunciation and regret is not enough, nor is anything that falls short of ending any kind of [Arab] relationship with this savage enemy, halting the [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiating farce, and holding America directly responsible for the enemy’s crimes, with all that would entail.”

The growing anger of the Arab “street,” the passionate rhetoric of the intelligentsia, seem to have begun seriously to alarm Arab leaders. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who, to general derision, first proposed an “emergency” summit to be held no sooner than January, has now brought it forward to this month, and Saudi Arabia, whose reluctance to participate in summits is generally attributed to American opposition to them, has not raised any objection. Iraq is expected to attend.

Mubarak has come under rare, direct criticism in Egypt’s opposition newspapers. “The Egyptian people are angry,” said al-Wafd. “The least that we demand is the breaking of relations.”

There was a time when Palestine, as the Arab cause par excellence, could topple regimes and foment revolution. Some openly hope it could do so again. In the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, leading platform of Arab opposition movements, Abd al-Bari al-Atwan wrote: “(U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine) Albright is doing her best to restore calm for the sake of Israeli and U.S. interests. She knows that the countdown to the end of U.S. hegemony over the region has started and that the spread of disturbances to Arab streets could shake Arab regimes that take orders from Washington and lead to a worldwide energy crisis. We pray to God to prolong the intifada, turn it into the trigger that will stir the Arab street to give vent to its accumulated frustrations.”

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