CAIRO -- Arab countries are eyeing the chaos in Gaza with alarm, fearing that the Palestinian fighting could spread to the West Bank and further destabilize the region. The Arab League chief called yesterday for a cease-fire, warning of disaster otherwise.
Arab governments have been stunned by a battle that is rapidly creating a dramatically new reality on their doorsteps: a Gaza Strip controlled by the militant group Hamas and a West Bank held by the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Egypt sent police to beef up security on the border with Gaza. Authorities deployed armored vehicles and water cannons to prevent any potential mass flight of Palestinians out of Gaza, while searching for tunnels under the border through which infiltrators could pass.
There are fears that if the fighting spreads to the West Bank, it will further weaken Abbas and ultimately stir up trouble for Jordan, said a Jordanian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity.
Roughly half of Jordan's 5.5 million population is Palestinian. A Gaza-style civil war in the neighboring West Bank could spark clashes between the factions' supporters in the kingdom -- particularly in refugee camps where many support Hamas, the official said.
The fighting is a major blow -- if not a death knell -- to months of attempts by US Arab allies Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to unify the Palestinians. The three regional powers have backed Abbas while trying to moderate Hamas, and Egypt and Jordan have helped train Abbas's security forces.
Yesterday, they were pushing a last-ditch attempt to mediate a resolution. An Egyptian delegation, sent to try to negotiate a cease-fire, was holed up in the presidential palace in Gaza City, where fighting was raging.
Arab foreign ministers planned emergency talks today in Cairo. Arab League chief Amr Moussa called for a cease-fire, warning that if the Palestinians do not support Egyptian mediation, "the outcome will be a disaster."
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt called for all sides to "cooperate with Egyptian mediation." But he also threw Cairo's support strongly behind Abbas, calling on all factions to "respect the Palestinian Authority . . . and its President Mahmoud Abbas."
Arab states fear a Hamas-run Gaza could become a power center for the group's allies Iran and Syria. On Wednesday, Jordan's Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit accused unnamed "regional forces" of fueling the fighting -- an apparent reference to Iran, which gives heavy financial support to Hamas.
In Israel, meanwhile, Defense Minister Amir Peretz convened his top security officials to discuss possible reactions to the Gaza fighting but decided, for the time being, to stay out of the conflict. He issued a vague warning that Israel would not allow the violence to reach it, participants said.
Security officials and analysts say Israel has nothing to gain from meddling in Gaza. "It's too late for us to get involved," said Reuven Pedatzur, an Israeli defense expert at the Center for Strategic Dialogue. "What are we supposed to do -- take over the entire strip and hand it over to Abbas?"
Some hard-line lawmakers propose just that -- despite the fact Israel withdrew all its forces and settlers from the region two years ago.
"It is high time for Israel to deliver a heavy blow to the Hamas terrorist network. If this will help Fatah regain control, I don't mind, but we have to do it for our own sake," said Yuval Steinitz of the hawkish Likud Party.