RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi aid campaign for Palestinians wounded in Israel’s assault on Gaza has gathered over 100 million riyals ($26.7 million) as the government tries to respond to rising popular anger over the offensive.
Saudi state media has carried prominent coverage of three dozen wounded Palestinians brought to the country for treatment in Saudi hospitals and reported a 30 million riyal donation to the state-run aid campaign by King Abdullah.
But this “protest by charity,” as al-Riyadh daily called it, is the only protest to be found in the conservative kingdom, a lynchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East that has tried to contain the threat of demonstrations.
The absolute monarchy has no elected parliament or legal opposition and public protests are generally banned.
Minority Shi’ite Muslims in eastern Saudi Arabia say dozens were arrested after a street protest days after Israel began its Gaza offensive on December 27 and that police broke up a second one with rubber bullets and batons.
The protests were reported on a Shi’ite website banned in Saudi Arabia, while the government denied they took place, citing a ban on such activities.
Two political reform activists were detained for trying to hold a sit-in in Riyadh two weeks ago, independent group Human Rights First said in a statement sent to news outlets.
“They considered it a legitimate right,” said a colleague who requested his name be withheld for fear of arrest. He said the Interior Ministry refused to grant permission for the sit-in.
Students at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah say they were denied permission to hold an indoor protest on campus.
“The university rector totally refused. He said the king has expressed the Saudi people’s opinion and that the university is not the place for such activities,” said Hashim al-Rifaie, adding students at King Fahd University in Dhahran also tried. Leading government-backed clerics have approved the ban on protests in a country that sees itself as the leader of mainstream Sunni Islam and houses Islam’s holiest sites.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh told Okaz newspaper on Saturday that protests were pointless noise: “Rowdiness is useless, just a farce. Money and aid helps.”
In addition to its charity campaign, the government has led a robust diplomatic effort at the United Nations.
On Monday, a cabinet statement accused Israel of “racist extermination” in Gaza and held out hope that the administration of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama would be “serious and objective” in working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.