Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Qatar’s Role in the Gaza Strip

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Palestinian children play football in a courtyard between new Qatari-built residential units in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 20, 2018. Photo AFP

Although the Palestinian cause receives much Arab attention, most Arab regimes have failed to give anything to the cause beyond hollow slogans and speeches. This is with the exception of Qatar, which in recent years has played a prominent political and financial role in the Palestinian territories, especially the Gaza Strip. This role has been the subject of debate among intellectuals and politicians. Some consider it a nationalist Arab intervention aimed at supporting the Palestinians and rebuilding Gaza whereas others see it as serving Israel first and foremost.

Among Arab countries, Qatar’s position on the Palestinian cause is most in line with the Palestinian na-tionalist vision. The Gulf state embraced many of the leaders of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (now Fatah) in the 1960s and was one of the first Arab countries to allow a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office in its territory, which became an embassy after the Algiers Declaration of a Palestinian State in 1988. Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifah was also the first Arab leader to visit Palestine after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA). His first visit was in 1999, when he met the late President Yasser Arafat in Gaza. His second visit was in October 2012, in a clear attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the enclave. Moreover, he provided financial and moral support.

On the international stage, Qatar has been one of the Palestinians’ staunchest defenders. During a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani strongly criticized Israel and accused the Israeli army of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the same speech, he expressed his support for the Palestinian resistance and called for a resolution to compel Israel to end the occupation.

Financial support for the Palestinians

The Palestinian people may be one of the main beneficiaries of Qatar’s support, which has seen millions of dollars channeled into reconstruction and development projects. Much of this money, which Qatar committed to pay during the Sharm el-Sheikh donor conference in March 2009, has gone to Gaza, where three wars with Israel have destroyed infrastructure, houses, government civil and security installations, mosques, schools and hospitals.

The total amount of financial contributions pledged by countries participating in the conference amounted to $4 billion. Only a few countries have fulfilled their commitments, including Qatar, which doubled its reconstruction grant to $407 million during the emir’s visit on October 23rd, 2012.

Among the projects that have received Qatari funding are the rehabilitation of Salah al-Din highway that runs the length of Gaza, al-Rasheed Street, al-Bahr Street, Karama Street, Sheikh Hamad Residen-tial City and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Hospital.

For these projects, the Gaza Reconstruction Committee was established, and Qatar sent its special envoy, Mohammed al-Emadi, to oversee their implementation. Qatar subsequently paid small annual grants such as the Gaza electricity support grant, the 2014 war grant, the Gaza employees bonus grant and the urgent humanitarian relief grant.

On 10 February 2019, Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that Qatar transferred more than $1.1 billion to Gaza between 2012 and 2018, with Israel’s endorsement, about 44 per cent of which was invested in infrastructure, 40 per cent in education and health and the rest was paid as salaries. This was in addition to $50 million paid to the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees in 2018.

There is no doubt that Qatar’s financial support has taken a political turn. Some see it as a positive affirmation of the strong Arab support for the Palestinian people. Others, however, see it as deepening the internal divide between Gaza and the West Bank, which serves Israel’s agenda. Criticism by the Fatah party became so virulent that Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah chairman and Palestinian president, had to intervene to bring it to an end.

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A general view of the Qatar-funded renovations of Harun al-Rashid street which runs parallel to the beach in Gaza City, 2017. Photo AFP

Qatari role in truce between Israel and Hamas

The Great March of Return protests, in which Gazans gathered weekly near the border fence to demand to be allowed to return to their pre-1948 homes, created a tense security situation. More than 300 Palestinians were killed and thousands of others wounded in the protests.

The Palestinian resistance attacked Israeli towns with locally manufactured rockets, escalating the tensions and causing Egypt to intervene. It presented a proposal to foster calm between the two sides in early November 2018. One of the points of the proposal was to allow Qatar to send $15 million over six months to support poor families and civil servants who have received less than half their monthly salary for more than three years.

In October, Qatar had already announced a $150 million grant for the Gaza Strip, $90 million of which was allocated to Hamas employees and $60 million to buy Israeli fuel to restart Gaza’s power plant. The Qatari grant agreement was signed between Hamas, Qatar, Egypt, the United Nations and Israel in November 2018. Israel’s approval of Qatar’s support was aimed at preventing the situation from deteriorating.

Two months into the six-month agreement, right-wing voices in Israel, especially former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, began criticizing the Israeli government and saying that the Qatari funds were a reward for silencing Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. Criticism also came from the PA and Fatah, which said that the Qatari funds serve Israeli aims by deepening the internal divide between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well as efforts to implement Donald Trump’s ‘deal of the century’.

Qatar’s stance towards the PA and Hamas

Qatar’s relationship with Hamas began after Hamas won the legislative elections in Gaza in 2006. Qatar has been particularly supportive of the Palestinian people since the war with Israel in 2008-2009, when Qatar called for an urgent Arab summit. The summit was boycotted by half of the Arab regimes, including the PA, which said it had not been consulted about the event. The PA’s boycott angered Qatar, which has increasingly developed a privileged relationship with Hamas. This relationship was strengthened after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, when Hamas decided to leave Syria and Qatar agreed to allow the movement, headed by Khalid Mishal, to open its main office in Doha.

As part of Qatar’s efforts to achieve reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, Doha hosted several rounds of talks between the two parties. These led to a reconciliation agreement that was signed in February 2012.

The PA’s refusal to accept Qatar’s aid to Gaza is due to the fact that the aid did not go through the Ministry of Finance in Ramallah, foiling the PA’s plan to exert economic and financial pressure on Gaza in an attempt to force Hamas to hand over power to the Ramallah-based government and to disarm.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani stated during the Munich Security Conference in Germany on 17 February 2019 that Qatar is not financing Hamas but is trying to put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

This was reflected in Qatar’s allocation on 6 May 2019 of $480 million for the West Bank and Gaza in the form of grants and loans to the PA, of which $180 million was earmarked for relief and humanitarian aid and for electricity services in Gaza. Qatar agreed to the PA’s demand to send its financial support through Ramallah.

The support came a day after Qatari efforts to achieve a truce between Israel and the Palestinian factions following a round of military escalation, which left around 30 Palestinian and four Israelis dead.

Why is Qatar supporting Gaza?

Some speak of a suspicious role by Qatar in Gaza and say that Qatar is carrying out suspicious projects in the region and implementing the policy of the United States to achieve separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to eventually establish the state of Gaza.

Whether this is true or not, it is clear that Qatar is seeking to bolster its regional position in the face of political rivalry with its neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Although it is difficult to understand regional and international alliances, Qatar has been able to maintain a prestigious position. On the one hand, it has strong relations with the United States – it hosts a military base that is home to the headquarters of the US Air Force Central Command – and is the first Gulf state to establish economic relations with Israel. On the other hand, it supports Hamas, which the United States has designated as a terrorist group. This is in addition to Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

It is noteworthy that Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is not motivated by proximity of political views. Rather, the relationship is based on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Tiny Qatar is determined to move out of Saudi Arabia’s shadow and play a regional role that in some cases has eclipsed some of its Gulf and Arab neighbours. To this end, Qatar uses soft power, namely the state-funded al-Jazeera media network and money, of which it has large amounts thanks to its gas and oil reserves.

These good relations with conflicting parties make Qatar a pivotal partner in terms of serving the interests of all these parties, including Israel and Hamas.

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