Nations across the Arab and Islamic world closed down their governments and shuttered their businesses today to dramatize outrage at Sunday's shootings by an American Israeli immigrant in a sacred Moslem shrine in Jerusalem.
The general strike, answering a call by King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, marked an extraordinarily broad and unanimous show of opposition to Israeli control over Islamic holy places in Jerusalem by an Arab world often divided along ideological, economic and political lines.
The strike grounded airliners along the Persian Gulf through Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Freighters stood in lines in idle gulf ports and the flow of petrodollars halted in closed banks and ministries. In Saudi Arabia and several of its conservative gulf neighbors, telephone and telex links were severed until dusk, and shops were closed as tightly as on the Moslem day of rest.
In Saudi Arabia, the state radio said about 15 nations of the 43 members of the Islamic Conference Organization headed by King Khalid followed his call for the strike action. Non-Arab Moslem states participating included Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey.
The response to Khalid's call reflected widespread frustration among governments and ordinary people at the violent desecration of the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, and subsequent Israeli toughness in putting down Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. But at the same time, it provided a bitter reminder of how far the Arab world remains from actually regaining the Israeli-held territories lost in the 1967 Middle East war.
"Did you see? We have recovered Palestine through a general strike," a Palestinian journalist here commented sardonically to an American friend.
Such doubts on the strike's practical effects seemed to emerge with particular clarity in the oil fields, the Arab world's main source of wealth and influence, Arab observers here pointed out.
The official Saudi News Agency described Khalid's general strike call as "a faithful outcry for mobilizing the vast resources of the world's 700 million Moslems against the catastrophic designs" of Israel in Jerusalem. But at the same time, reports from the kingdom said Saudi oil fields were in full operation and tankers were lifting crude as usual at the giant Ras Tanura loading terminal.
In Iran, which is strongly Moslem although not Arab, President Ali Khamenei urged the Moslem world to reduce or cut off oil exports to pressure the United States and other industrialized countries to end aid to Israel "in support of our Palestinian brothers and against the Zionist regime." There was no indication, however, that any other government participating in the strike was contemplating such an action.
Khamenei's speech, relayed by the Iranian Revolutionary News Agency, was seconded by a message from Iran's Islamic patriarch, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, read aloud to an anti-Israeli rally near the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran and carried by the official Iranian radio.
"The incident at the mosque is an insult to God and his prophets by a bunch of animal hooligans," Khomeini told the crowd, according to the broadcast. "It is shameful for Islamic countries that have the juglar vein of the world superpowers in their hands to sit and watch America set a corrupt and worthless entity against them."
Khomeini's veiled call for an oil cutoff contrasted markedly with Iran's recent attempts to increase exports by offering high discounts to overcome market softness despite pricing accords by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Similarly, Khomeini's reference to Israel as a "corrupt and worthless entity" seemed to conflict with widely reported Israeli arms aid for Iran in its war against Iraq.
In an apparent attempt to underline the difference between rhetoric and reality, President Ali Nasser Mohammed of Marxist South Yemen ordered his country's workers to put in an extra shift instead of going out on strike. The additional income, Aden officials told news agencies, will be set aside to assist Palestinians under Israeli occupation in Gaza and on the West Bank.
But elsewhere in the Arab world, government offices and businesses remained closed.
The Lebanese flag carrier, Middle East Airlines, joined airlines in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Syria in canceling or postponing most flights until the end of the day. Thousands of travelers were stranded in gulf cities waiting for flights to Europe.
Washington Post correspondent David B. Ottaway reported the following from Cairo:
While such a protest has never been staged before in the Arab or Islamic world, the fact that no action was taken to impair economic or financial relations with the United States was probably equally significant.
Nor was there any mention of the Arab and Islamic world mobilizing for a jihad, or holy war, such as the Saudis called for last August, to no avail, when Israel formally declared all of Jerusalem its undivided capital.
Among the Arab nations that totally ignored the Saudi call for a strike was Egypt, although Egyptian political and religious leaders, including Christian Coptic ones, have condemned the shooting in strong terms.
Egypt is the only Arab nation to have signed a peace treaty with Israel and is scheduled to recover on April 25 the last portion of the Sinai Peninsula occupied by the Israelis since the 1967 war.
Observers here said the Egyptians had probably decided not to observe the strike to avoid alienating Israel, which is already extremely nervous about Egypt's moves toward a reconciliation with the Arab world.