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Arab governments appeared at a loss Thursday over how to stop the stunning wave of bloodshed in Gaza, which threatens to wreck their already faltering efforts to resume the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The fighting sparked despair among Arabs watching television footage of what looked like open warfare between Palestinians. "May God curse you all," renowned Egyptian columnist Ahmed Ragab wrote, referring to the Palestinian factions.
The chaos is a heavy blow to US Arab allies, who have tried for months to mediate an end to the disputes between the religious Hamas movement and the more secular Fatah faction led by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia has stayed silent about the clashes in Gaza since they began five days ago - a sign of its anger at the two sides and its reluctance to get involved.
The kingdom put its political clout on the line in February when it hosted a summit between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal aimed at ending a previous bout of fighting between them. The summit in Mecca ended with a deal on a Palestinian unity government that Saudi Arabia touted as a major breakthrough - and that now is threatened with collapse.
"It is hard to see Saudis or anyone else expending political capital and sticking their neck out for the Palestinians while gunmen controlled by Hamas and Fatah turn Gaza into a homegrown killing field," Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper said in an editorial.
Some observers said the fighting underlined how the power-sharing deal only papered over Hamas and Fatah's disputes. "The Mecca agreement didn't get into the deep-rooted divisions between Hamas and Fatah," Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi writer said.
Those who signed onto the deal at Mecca knew it faced opposition from extremists on both sides, said Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor in chief of the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. Hamas's military wing was not happy with a freeze in attacks on Israel, while Fatah hard-liners wanted "to topple the agreement because they don't want a partner (Hamas) or the national unity government," he said.
Other Arab leaders have been able to do little else but call for an end to the fighting. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who mediated between Abbas and Mashaal during a meeting in Cairo last month, spoke by phone with Abbas on Thursday, telling him, "Palestinian blood is sacred."
Jordan's King Abdullah II also spoke to Abbas, urging him to show more resolve to end the fighting and to press Hamas to stop rocket attacks on Israel that threaten to widen the conflict.
Egypt, Jordan and two other key US allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been trying to convince the United States and Israel to accept an Arab peace initiative as a starting ground for relaunching peace negotiations. The deal offers full peace with all Arab nations if Israel withdraws from territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War and the creation of a Palestinian state.
They were already struggling to bring Israel on board - and the new fighting threatens to make the offer all but irrelevant for the time being.
"We have been trying to convince the Americans to convince the Israelis to come back to negotiations," an Arab official of a Gulf country said. "But how effective can we be when Palestinians are killing each other."
Arab TV stations showed constant images resembling a war zone from the Gaza fighting, with masked gunmen in the abandoned streets and people rushing the wounded away on stretchers. Al-Jazeera broadcast live from its offices in Gaza, where journalists in flak jackets and helmets were trapped as gunfire raged outside.
Viewers in the Arab world - long loyal advocates of the Palestinian cause - were stunned and said the turmoil only benefits Israel.
Some blamed the Palestinian factions for a futile fight over power. Zeinab Mohammed, a 21-year-old Egyptian student, said the factions were "serving no one but their own personal interests."
"America, Israel and the whole West want to see us divided," said 47-year-old Kamal Abu-Zeid, wearing thick eyeglasses, and selling newspapers in front of Cairo University.
Sateh Nourredine, managing editor of Lebanon's As-Safir daily, said Gaza "is out of control."
"No one knows where it will lead. They've tried mediation by Egypt, the Arab League and the Mecca agreement. They've had direct talks and a national unity government. Then the situation explodes in this catastrophic way," he told AP. "There is no political logic to what's happening."
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