Qatari crisis could spell new trouble for embattled Hamas
Gaza Strip - A blow for Hamas? A 2016 file picture shows posters depicting Qatar’s former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (R) and Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on a building as people attend the opening ceremony of Qatari-funded construction project “Hamad City” in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (Reuters)
Gaza Strip - Q atar, one of the few foreign backers of Hamas, faces massive pressure from its Gulf neighbours to cut ties with the Islamic militant group. If it does, the result could be disastrous for Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Qatar has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in roads, housing and a major hospital in Gaza. Its infrastructure projects are one of the few job-creators in a devastated economy.
Gaza already suffers from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, widespread destruction from a string of Israel- Hamas wars, economic misery and chronic electricity shortages. For Hamas, Qatar’s injection of funds into the Gaza economy is a vital lifeline bolstering its rule.
Qatar appears to be weighing its options but the mere prospect of losing Qatari support prompted Hamas to issue rare criticism of Saudi Arabia, which has been leading the campaign against its tiny Gulf neighbour.
Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said the Saudi call for Qatar to cut ties with the Palestinian group is “regrettable” and contradicts traditional Arab support for the Palestinian cause.
Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting violent Islamist groups across the region, including Hamas. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Qatar must sever its ties with Hamas.
Qatar has denied the allegations but its small size and reliance on food imports from Saudi Arabia could make it susceptible to the pressure.
This could spell trouble for Hamas. The group is considered a terrorist group by Israel and its Western allies. Israel and Hamas have fought three cross-border wars that caused large-scale damage in Gaza.
Qatar does not support Hamas directly but its large-scale projects have significantly eased the burden on Hamas authorities and given it some credit for bringing this money to Gaza.
In 2012, Qatar’s then emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza, the first and only head of state to do so since Hamas seized control of the territory from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ten years ago. The emir announced a grant of $407 million for humanitarian projects.
The grant is being used to build a housing complex of 3,000 units. Two phases of the Hamad Residential City have been completed and families moved into their new houses in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis.
Palestinian contractors and Qatari envoys signed deals in May to start the third and final phase of Hamad City. Those deals could now be in question.
Using that grant, Qatar also built a specialist prosthetic centre, the first of its kind in Gaza. Qatar paved roads, repaired or rebuilt mosques and oversaw dozens of other infrastructure projects.
Qatari Ambassador to the United States Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani said his country’s work in Gaza was “purely humanitarian.”
“All our contacts are very transparent and they are clear, in coordination with the US and the Palestinians and the Israelis. We don’t understand where the problem is,” he said.
Following a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2014, Qatar was the largest single donor for the reconstruction of Gaza, pledging $1 billion at a Cairo-hosted international conference. Qatar has delivered $50 million of this pledge for building 1,000 houses.
Qatar also helped pay for fuel deliveries from Israel, which, despite its enmity to Hamas, supplies energy to Gaza for what it says are humanitarian reasons. However, in an ominous sign for Hamas, Qatar has stopped the energy payments for the past two months. It is unclear whether the payments were halted under Arab pressure.
As the Islamic group marks its tenth anniversary in power, the situation is grim. The territory suffers from rolling power cuts, with just four hours of electricity at a time, followed by 14-18 hours of outages. Tap water is undrinkable. Youth unemployment is estimated at 60%. Thousands wait for a rare chance to exit the blockaded territory.
Unable to offer a remedy, Hamas has jailed people who dare to criticise it.
Mkhaimar Abusada, an independent Gaza political analyst, said Qatari pressure could increase Hamas’s political and financial isolation.
A high-level Hamas delegation was summoned to neighbouring Egypt, which has had cool relations with Hamas. “If these talks don’t lead to new understandings getting Hamas out of its difficult political situation, I think there will be more crises,” he said.
One person who could benefit from Hamas’s troubles is Abbas, who has repeatedly failed in talks with Hamas to regain control of Gaza.
Abbas recently reduced the salaries of his former employees in Gaza and threatened to scale back payments for Gaza’s electricity — attempts to pressure Hamas. Abbas’s government, which maintains good ties with Qatar, has not commented on the latest crisis.
Chagai Tzuriel, the director general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, said Hamas’s many troubles have put it in a “strategic bind.”
“I think they are under greater pressure now than before,” he said.
(The Associated Press)