Qatar cri­sis leaves Ha­mas in lurch

With its pa­tron un­der pres­sure, Pales­tinian mil­i­tant group is now court­ing Egypt’s aid.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Joshua Mitnick and Rushdi abu Alouf

GAZA CITY — Five years ago, Gaza’s streets were decked out with ma­roon-and-white flags to wel­come the emir of Qatar, Sheik Ha­mad bin Khal­ifa al Thani.

Cel­e­bra­tory songs played on the ra­dio as Ha­mad made the first visit by a for­eign head of state to the Ha­mas­run en­clave and pledged $400 mil­lion for build­ing projects — a diplo­matic coup for the Pales­tinian mil­i­tant group.

But in re­cent weeks, Qatari sup­port has wa­vered as the tiny Per­sian Gulf emi­rate came un­der po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic pres­sure from Arab neigh­bors to dis­tance it­self from Is­lamist groups in the re­gion. Ha­mas lead­ers have been leav­ing their head­quar­ters in Doha, Qatar’s cap­i­tal, and con­tin­ued sup­port for Qatari con­struc­tion in the Gaza Strip looks un­cer­tain.

Qatar’s pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion has prompted Ha­mas — which is grap­pling with a power short­age in Gaza that deep­ened Mon­day — to seek to re­pair ties with Egypt. In re­cent talks in Cairo, Ha­mas and Egyp­tian of­fi­cials have dis­cussed co­op­er­at­ing to shut down the flow of arms and mil­i­tants to armed groups in the Si­nai Penin­sula loyal to the mil­i­tant group Is­lamic State.

“Re­gional cir­cum­stances have changed. Ha­mas is po­lit­i­cally iso­lated more than ever,” said Mkhaimar Abu­sada, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Gaza’s Al Azhar Univer­sity. “There might be a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to recom­mit with the Egyp­tians. That might give Ha­mas a chance to at least avoid fur­ther po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion.”

Closer ties with Egypt and an eas­ing of Cairo’s block­ade might help re­strain Ha­mas’ hawk­ish mil­i­tary wing from es­ca­lat­ing hos­til­i­ties with Is­rael. Khalil Haya, the deputy Ha­mas chief, said Sun­day that the group doesn’t plan to em­bark on a new round of fight­ing with Is­rael, con­tra­dict­ing re­marks from Ha­mas of­fi­cials a week ear­lier.

Qatar be­came Ha­mas’ most im­por­tant pa­tron af­ter the tur­moil of the “Arab Spring” up­ris­ings that be­gan in 2011. Af­ter Syria be­came en­gulfed in a civil war, Khaled Me­shaal, Ha­mas’ for­mer po­lit­i­cal leader, de­camped from Da­m­as­cus and re­lo­cated to Doha. Qatar fi­nanced roads, hos­pi­tals and salaries in Gaza, as well as elec­tric­ity pur­chases from Is­rael. Its Al Jazeera news chan­nel pro­vided sym­pa­thetic news cov­er­age. Qatar’s sup­port for the 2 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans in the block­aded ter­ri­tory gave it added pres­tige within the Mid­dle East.

But now, Qatar finds it­self un­der siege. Many of its Arab neigh­bors have cut diplo­matic ties, and Saudi Ara­bia has shut air, sea and land borders with Doha. And the pres­sure on Qatar is re­ver­ber­at­ing in Gaza.

Af­ter top Ha­mas of­fi­cials left Doha, Haya said on Sun­day that the group’s newly elected po­lit­i­cal chief, Is­mail Haniyeh, has aban­doned plans to re­lo­cate from Gaza to Qatar. The diplo­matic breach is also play­ing out in a half-fin­ished new res­i­den­tial project in the south­ern Gaza Strip that is be­ing fi­nanced by Qatar and is called “Ha­mad city” for the for­mer Qatari leader. The fate of about 1,000 un­built homes is now un­cer­tain.

Ob­servers see Qatar and Ha­mas’ cur­rent crises as stem­ming in part from the new U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion’s moves in the re­gion, as Pres­i­dent Trump lumped Ha­mas to­gether with Is­lamic State and other mil­i­tant Is­lamist move­ments.

Ha­mas has also been un­der pres­sure from Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas, who cut fund­ing for fuel pay­ments for Gaza’s sole power sta­tion as well as pay­ments to Is­rael for the Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory’s elec­tric­ity bill.

On Mon­day, Mo­hammed Tha­bet, the spokesman of the Gaza Elec­tric­ity Dis­tri­bu­tion Co., said Is­rael had re­duced the power it sup­plies to the en­clave by about 7%. The power cut is ex­pected to limit daily power sup­plies to res­i­dences to just three hours, down from five hours. Ha­mas of­fi­cials warned last week that the elec­tric­ity cur­tail­ment could lead to an “ex­plo­sion” of vi­o­lence.

“Ha­mas is grap­pling with an ex­ter­nal cri­sis in the re­gion and an in­ter­nal cri­sis with the elec­tric­ity,” said Bjorn Bren­ner, a re­searcher at the Swedish De­fense Univer­sity and the au­thor of a book on Ha­mas. “Ha­mas is su­per wor­ried they will be com­pletely kicked out of Qatar. If this hap­pens, they have to have a Plan B, and we don’t know ex­actly what this in­volves.”

Re­la­tions be­tween Egypt and Ha­mas have his­tor­i­cally been strained be­cause of the Pales­tinian group’s ties to the Mus­lim Brother­hood in Egypt. Af­ter Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah Sisi’s ouster of the Mus­lim Brother­hood in 2013, re­la­tions be­tween Cairo and Ha­mas — an off­shoot of the Mus­lim Brother­hood — suf­fered.

Along with Is­rael, Egypt has en­forced a block­ade on Gaza by se­verely re­strict­ing Pales­tini­ans from cross­ing into Egypt. At the same time, Egyp­tian forces have been in­volved in a crackdown along the Gaza-Egypt bor­der to block smug­gling routes that aid mil­i­tants in the Si­nai Penin­sula who are loyal to Is­lamic State.

Speak­ing to re­porters on Sun­day af­ter a round of talks with Egypt, Haya sounded con­cil­ia­tory to­ward Egypt and said that Cairo might step in to help al­le­vi­ate the elec­tric­ity cri­sis in Gaza.

“Re­la­tions with Egypt are go­ing well and have im­proved,” Haya said. “There is an Egyp­tian un­der­stand­ing of the cri­sis in Gaza and there was a readi­ness by Egypt to play an im­por­tant role” in solv­ing the cri­sis, he said.

Haya said that Ha­mas is de­ter­mined to block mil­i­tant groups in Si­nai that chal­lenge Egyp­tian rule and that se­cur­ing the borders is a “joint in­ter­est” with Cairo.

A rap­proche­ment with Cairo is likely to be viewed with sus­pi­cion among some of Ha­mas’ sym­pa­thiz­ers in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries.

“The main ob­jec­tive of Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt is to pres­sure Ha­mas, since Qatar is the only coun­try help­ing Ha­mas. They are try­ing to pres­sure Ha­mas to move to­ward a peace process with Is­rael,” said Nashat Aq­tash, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor at Birzeit Univer­sity in the West Bank who has worked as a con­sul­tant to Is­lamist can­di­dates. “The Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment is a ser­vant of the Is­raelis, the U.S. and the Saudis.”

A de­tente with Cairo would also limit the pos­si­bil­ity that Ha­mas might seek to en­hance its ties with Iran, a ri­val of Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt. A rekin­dling of Ha­mas’ al­liance with Iran — an op­tion that has been pushed by the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mil­i­tary wing — would raise the risk of a new con­flict with Is­rael.

“The sit­u­a­tion con­tains the risk that Ha­mas, feel­ing pinched and squeezed, and per­haps pushed into Iran’s arms, might be­come more mil­i­tant,” said Daniel Shapiro, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael, in a con­fer­ence call with re­porters. “There are lots of pres­sures and vec­tors on Ha­mas, some push­ing them to­ward con­flict, others that could pre­vent it.”

Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dents Mitnick and Abu Alouf re­ported from Tel Aviv and Gaza City, re­spec­tively.

Ali Ali Pool Photo

QATAR’S then-emir, Sheik Ha­mad bin Khal­ifa al Thani, cen­ter right, pledged $400 mil­lion for build­ing projects dur­ing his 2012 visit to the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the mil­i­tant group Ha­mas. But the emi­rate’s sup­port has wa­vered amid a re­gional block­ade of Qatar.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.