Sunday,23 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Sunday,23 July, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Gulf cloud on Gaza

Hamas is the latest casualty of the Saudi-UAE crisis with Qatar, Amira Howeidy reports

Gulf cloud on Gaza
Gulf cloud on Gaza

Almost a month after the Islamic Palestinian resistance movement Hamas issued a revised political document with a conciliatory message to its regional neighbours, the group found itself caught up in the Saudi-Emirati crisis with Qatar that hosts its leadership in exile.

A day following the dawn announcement of 5 June by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severing diplomatic ties with Qatar over its support for “terrorist groups aiming to destabilise the region”, Riyadh’s foreign minister demanded that Doha end its support for “terrorist” groups the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in order to restore ties.

Saudi Arabia’s sudden designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group might not be entirely surprising, even under King Salman’s regime, which showed little interest in pursuing his predecessor’s hostile policy against the group. But reference to Hamas as a terrorist organisation caught the group by surprise.

Qatar, said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair, was undermining the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt in its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We don’t think this is good. Qatar has to stop these policies so that it can contribute to stability in the Middle East,” he said.

Hamas -already apprehensive of escalation against Doha which reportedly asked some of its figures to leave the country hours before its Gulf neighbours cut diplomatic ties- responded with shock. “This is a blow to the Palestinian people” who consider Hamas a resistance movement struggling against Israeli occupation, the group said in a statement.

Al-Jubair’s remarks are “alien” to Saudi Arabia that has always supported the Palestinian cause and international laws that enshrine the right to resist occupation, Hamas said.

In 2007, Riyadh brokered the Mecca Agreement between Hamas and its rival Fatah ending months of infighting and pledging $1 billion in Saudi aid. In 2006 Hamas won Palestinian local elections to the shock and dismay of both the Palestinian Authority and the ruling Fatah party, Israel and the international community. After a conflict with Fatah, Hamas seized control of Gaza, Israel imposed a strict land, sea and air blockade of the strip which remains in force even ten years later.

In 2008, Israel launched a three week assault on Gaza killing 1,400 civilians. Since then and throughout the following Israeli wars in 2012 and 2014, Doha emerged as the biggest donor to Gaza and Hamas. But with pressure mounting on Doha from its Gulf neighbours, the flow of humanitarian aid is threatened and Qatari-funded construction projects possibly put on hold.

Hamas figure Salah Al-Arouri reportedly left Doha to Malaysia 4 June after Qatari authorities informed the group of a list of names required to relocate. Khaled Meshaal, the group’s former leader who stepped down a month ago, has been living in Doha after moving from Damascus in the civil war’s aftermath, along with other Hamas leaders. It is unclear if Meshaal and the group’s leadership in Doha have been asked to leave promptly, later, or at all.

Unlike the UAE, which explicitly rejects all political Islam groups and hosts anti-Hamas exiled Palestinian politician Mohamed Dahlan, Riyadh’s relations with Hamas were stable. That Al-Jubair, not the UAE’s foreign minister, was the first to spell out this new Saudi policy has left observers with more questions than answers.

“The only country in the region that considers Hamas a terrorist group is Israel,” said Abdel-Qader Yassin, a Palestinian commentator based in Cairo. “This is entirely new to Riyadh and could be a prelude to escalation against armed resistance in Gaza.”

In April, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas decided to slash the salaries of tens of thousands of PA employees in Gaza and recently asked Israel to cut back electricity supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip as a form of pressure on Hamas.

“There are signs that there’s a coordinated policy to escalate against Hamas in Gaza,” Yassin said in an interview.

Hamas is already in a difficult position. The Sunni group is supported by Iran, Riyadh’s regional nemesis, but doesn’t want to be aligned with Tehran in the current regional conflict. Historically, it is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which it acknowledges in its charter. Last month, the group issued a political document that made no mention of the Brotherhood and removed religious or anti-Semitic language in redefining its struggle with Israel as a Zionist occupation entity.

“Hamas had tried to make overtures to Saudi Arabia in recent years, to no avail. So, it’s not even clear that for Hamas there is an option of ‘choosing’ Saudi Arabia over Iran,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

But even if such a choice were available to Hamas, it would be an extraordinarily difficult one to make: how, asked Thrall, can a Palestinian resistance group maintain its identity and strategy of resistance while joining a regional alliance that is backed by the United States and tacitly includes Israel?

The Hamas document released early May has been viewed as a response to its weakened position. “They understand which way the wind is blowing in the region and it’s against them,” said Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy.

“Clearly this wasn’t enough for this regional bloc. Hamas will always be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. If the document was intended to allay fears and diffuse tensions, it clearly didn’t work.”

The crisis and coordinated pressure has the potential to lead to an escalation in Gaza, now anticipating less support from isolated Qatar.

“I don’t know if that is the intention, or they want to overthrow Hamas,” said Elgindy. “But they want to keep them weak and destabilised. The problem is that calculating precisely where the turning point is — when destabilising becomes war — is very hard to know. They can very easily go too far and Hamas is going to want to push back.”

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