Analysis

As Qatar Crisis Backs Hamas Into a Corner, Israel Fears Another Round of Violence in Gaza

The severe rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could have consequences in another arena closer to Israel

Israeli soldiers from the armored corps atop tanks after returning to Israel from Gaza August 5, 2014.
Reuters

The severe crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could have consequences in another arena closer to Israel, the Gaza Strip.

In recent years Qatar has been one of the last props for the Hamas regime in Gaza. Hamas’ ties with Egypt were damaged after the 2013 coup that brought the generals back into power in Cairo. Iran reduced its financial support to Hamas (although it was partly restored recently) due to the Sunni-Shi’ite dispute over the Syrian civil war, while Turkey’s interest in Gaza declined after the reconciliation agreement with Israel and amid President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s troubles both at home and abroad.

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Palestinian Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 21, 2015.
Reuters

The small and wealthy Gulf state continued to support Hamas and more than once joined up to help resolve Hamas’ temporary lack of funds. One can assume that the Qatari emissary who ostensibly represents his country's interests in the territories has also served as an unofficial mediator between Hamas, Israel and the Palestinian Authority on matters from indirect agreements for Gaza's reconstruction after the 2014 war to feelers for prisoner and MIA deals. At the same time, Qatar not only hosted Khaled Meshal when he led Hamas, it opened its gates to senior members of the organization’s military wing, headed by Salah Aruri.

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Aruri, whom Israel deported from the West Bank about seven years ago, only recently arrived in Qatar from Turkey, from which he was expelled following American pressure. In both Turkey and Qatar, Aruri continued to direct Hamas activities in the West Bank, a Hamas apparatus abroad that transferred money and instructions for attacks against Israel and subversion against the Palestinian Authority.

Under American and Saudi pressure, at the beginning of the week Qatar informed Aruri and his people that they'd have to quickly leave the country. The Saudis were far from satisfied by the move; they have since instituted a sweeping boycott of Qatar into which they’ve dragged Egypt, Sudan and some of the Gulf states.

Anger at Qatar involves its flirtation with opposition camps in Saudi Arabia, including the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, and to a certain extent with Iran. To Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Brotherhood is dangerous. Cairo is also hostile to Hamas because the group is an offshoot of the Brotherhood in Egypt. One of the leaked statements that sparked anger against Qatar in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Ramallah involved a claim attributed to Qatari ruler Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani that the Muslim Brotherhood (that is, Hamas) is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

The Saudi-Qatari crisis caught most intelligence agencies in the West by surprise (and certainly we shouldn’t envy the American analysts who now have to explain this complex situation to Donald Trump). At the moment there are assessments that Qatar, which apparently also didn’t expect the Saudi move against it, will have to cave to the pressure at least partly.

That could also affect the relationship with Hamas. A few days ago, Hamas’ Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar and other senior officials went to Egypt for talks, after which they were to continue on to Qatar. The Qatari crisis caught them in Cairo, which had suspended air traffic to the Qatari capital Doha.

But that’s the least of their problems. Sinwar, Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh, the newly elected head of Hamas’ political wing, will have to weigh their next moves carefully. Contrary to Gaza’s expectations, Cairo rarely opens the Rafah crossing with the Strip.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is tightening the economic siege on Gaza with his decisions to reduce financial support to PA employees there, as well as to freed prisoners and the prisoners deported in the deal to release abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. The PA has also reduced payments to Israel for fuel to the Gaza power station and the power line to Gaza. It’s very difficult for the Netanyahu government to fund electricity payments instead of the PA, because that would be perceived as a concession to Hamas.

At the height of the month-long Ramadan fast, electricity to Gaza has been reduced to four hours a day at best, with a good many homes and public institutions relying partly on generators. The power outages worsen the lack of drinking water; they make it difficult to purify wastewater. This increases pollution in the Mediterranean and could have implications for southern Israel’s beaches.

Ostensibly, in light of Hamas' troubles, a decision to seek a military escalation with Israel would be utterly foolish for Hamas. The question is whether Sinwar, now the strongman in Gaza, and his partner in the military wing, Mohammed Def, are thinking along the same lines as Israel.

Sinwar’s worldview was formed over the 20-plus years he spent in Israeli prisons until he was released in the Shalit deal. His knowledge of Israeli society is broad and deep (“I suspect he understands more about Judaism than I do,” an official in the Shin Bet security service said). But with this knowledge comes a deep ideological animus and faith in the military struggle.

The worsening conditions in Gaza also worry Israeli security officials and have led in recent weeks to discussions on the possibility of another outbreak of fighting this summer, three years after Operation Protective Edge and under quite similar circumstances. A conflict can still be prevented, but Hamas is already playing with fire. Over the past two weeks it has encouraged demonstrations, some of them violent, by Gazans near the border fence with Israel, after many months during which it firmly prevented all such activity.