Shuttle diplomacy: Qatar playing politics in Palestine


The Palestinians rolled out the red carpet for Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the first head of state to officially set foot on the territory under Hamas' control. The visit essentially legitimized Hamas as the de facto controller of the Gaza Strip.

Michael Stephens
29 October 2012

The visit of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to the Gaza Strip was a fascinating piece of shuttle diplomacy. With great pomp and circumstance the Palestinians rolled out the red carpet for the first head of state to officially set foot on the territory under their control. However one looks at the situation, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that alone is a big deal. The visit essentially legitimized Hamas as the de facto controller of the Gaza Strip, recognizing that their leadership was deserving of a visit from another head of state.

That Hamas has been in sole control of the territory since 2007 despite blockades, and a war with Israel in 2008/9 is testament to its ability to preserve its power structure. And as such it was about time that someone, somewhere recognized that ignoring and isolating Hamas, was not only based on an outdated unrealistic policy, but was just downright foolish.

The Israelis, despite their evident frustration, don’t really have a leg to stand on, numerous Israeli security officials admit that significant back channel contacts between the two sides exist and are used constantly. As much as they deny the fact in public the Israelis know that Hamas is here to stay, and that Qatar’s interactions with them are positive.

There are two reasons for this, firstly the nature of politics in the Strip means that should Hamas one day fall from power, it would not be replaced by Fatah, the so called ‘moderate’ Palestinian faction. But by something far worse, most likely a combination of Iran supplied Palestinian Islamic Jihad, radical salafi factions and renegade offshoots of Hamas’ military wing the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades. Secondly Qatar supports Hamas not because it wants to encourage a war with Israel, but because it sees strengthening the group’s legitimacy as the most realistic way to achieve some sense of security and improvement in the quality of life for Palestinians living the beleaguered territory.

Qatar has attempted to maintain relations with Israel in various different guises, and although relations are frosty, Qatar does not seek Israel’s destruction. Flustered Israeli rhetoric concerning Qatar’s support for Hamas is not based on strategic reality. The $400m investment in infrastructure, education and health facilities allows Hamas the space to secure its own presence in the strip vis-à-vis far more radical groups, something that it has struggled to do in the past two years.

Surely the Israelis would prefer the devil they know supported by Qatar, a state which does not seek Israel’s destruction, than an Iranian sponsored rag tag bunch of militants working day and night to annihilate the Jewish state.

Aside from the Israel question, it is important to ask why Qatar has chosen this moment to press the Palestinian cause. The Qataris have long standing links to the Hamas leadership, and its Chairman Khaled Meshaal frequents Doha numerous times as year as well as owning a house here. Qatar likes to work with people it possesses deep personal ties to, as it has in Libya and Syria. This is the basis of how Qatar prefers to work in the Arab world.

The ties are strong, Qatar for better or worse has a leaning towards the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a weak offshoot, the interests are to some extent congruent. A political Islamism across the Sunni Arab world that is pervasive but not all encompassing is certainly something that finds support in the Emiri Diwan.

The Emir has sometimes been described as an Islamist Nasserist, as a man seeking unity across the Arab world through Ikhwan inspired movements that help to bring the disparate and fractured nations of the Arab world together as one.

I believe this assessment to be partially true, the Emir does seek increased unity in the Arab world, and if he believes that Qatar can play a role in achieving this goal, he will seek to work toward it. The region is becoming more Islamist, so the Emir supports Islamist movements; building a wall in the way of an Islamist tidal wave such as the Emiratis have done is seen as a pointless waste of energy. It is better to ride the wave and have some control and direction over its course of travel than stop it.

So this is why Qatar deals with Hamas, the Emir views them as far more an accurate depiction of the direction of Sunni Arab politics than the weak, tainted Fatah, meekly holding on to cantons of the West Bank. The potential for an Ikhwan inspired Levant is not out of the question; this despite the numerous differences between Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian branches of it. Qatar for its part could be at the helm of this drive and steer its direction. It is a regional aspiration, and one that if beneficial for the Palestinians is a huge boon for the Emir and his standing in the region.

Following a rather topsy-turvy performance in Syria, Qatar is in need of some good PR. The Palestinian initiative is the perfect way to recoup some of that lost ground. And if it aids Qatar’s aspirations for a more united Arab world, so much the better.

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