Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals, call for Gaza ceasefire

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals that restored diplomatic ties in 2023, met on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at a summit where they called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the unconditional delivery of humanitarian aid to the enclave, which Israeli forces have besieged since the Oct 7 Hamas attack.

The two Islamic countries, which support opposing factions in proxy conflicts across the region, first announced their diplomatic breakthrough in March, after years of hostility, in a deal brokered by China. But it was unclear whether the shift would lead to a lasting detente between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy and Iran’s Shi’ite government.

Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, however, appears to have hastened the warming of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, just as delicate diplomacy had been inching Saudi Arabia and Israel towards possible normalisation of relations. Iran, which Israel considers its most dangerous foe, is a powerful patron of Hamas.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose visit to Saudi Arabia was the first by an Iranian president to the kingdom in more than a decade, was greeted at the summit venue by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Iranian President draped on his shoulder a kaffiyeh, the black-and-white square chequered scarf that has become a badge of Palestinian identity.

The two leaders had spoken by phone for the first time just a few days after Oct 7. Iran said in March that Mr Raisi had received an invitation to visit the kingdom shortly after the two countries announced resumed relations.

The war was set off after the Oct 7 attack in southern Israel by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that controls Gaza, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 240 others were taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Since then, Israel has bombarded Gaza with thousands of air strikes, laid siege to the territory by cutting off water, food, fuel and other necessities, and launched a ground invasion with the stated intention of destroying Hamas, which Israel and many other countries regard as a terrorist organisation.

The Israeli air war and artillery strikes have killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, many of them children and women, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

At the summit, Mr Raisi criticised the international community for what he said was its silence on violations committed against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Israel and the United States – Israel’s most important ally – oppose a ceasefire for now, saying it would only allow Hamas’ military wing to regroup, although Israel has agreed to what officials call short “humanitarian pauses” to allow people to leave combat zones.

The Saudi Crown Prince said the crisis had demonstrated “the failure of the Security Council and the international community to put an end to the flagrant Israeli violations of international laws”.

The Arab and Muslim participants at the summit called for an arms embargo against Israel and said regional peace could not be achieved without resolving the Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution, a long-time pillar of Middle East diplomacy efforts.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said regional countries’ pressure on Israel was beginning to pay off.

“We are starting to see a shift in positions, not enough yet, but moving in the right direction,” he said at a news conference after the summit. “We are starting to hear that countries that used to give Israel a blank cheque are now talking about protecting civilians and the importance of conducting combat within the boundaries of international humanitarian law and humanitarian pauses.”

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