When Mohammed Al-Emadi, Qatar’s envoy to the Gaza Strip, told the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau in Gaza, Khalil al-Haya, “we want quiet,” it epitomized the anaesthetizing rhetoric that has been a cornerstone of Qatar’s foreign policy for more than two decades.
Qatar is a family that has a country. It’s wealthy because of its gas reserves, but lacks any historical, religious or cultural heritage that could help it brand itself as a leading Mideast country alongside, or even surpassing, its rivals, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Thus to become a leading country, Qatari Emir Hamad Al Thani, followed by his son Tamim, decided to anaesthetize rival Arab leaders and undermine them quietly until it can oust and replace them with friendlier, more cooperative Islamist rulers. To accomplish this, it mobilized three important assets – the Al Jazeera television station, former Knesset member Azmi Bishara and Sunni religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
They exploited young Arabs’ anger and shame over years of exclusion and marginalization, imbued them with faith in their power to effect change, gave them logical rationales and religious legitimization, and encouraged them to rebel. To understand how important their roles were in the Arab uprisings of 2011, it’s enough to listen to the Arab revolutionaries themselves, who compared Al Jazeera to freedom or oxygen given a dying man, termed Bishara “the ideologue, conscience and signpost of the uprising” and called Al-Qaradawi “the revolutionaries’ sheikh.”
After Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi came to power in Egypt, the brotherhood’s party Ennahda took power in Tunisia and Khaled Meshal, then head of Hamas’ political bureau, moved from Syria to Qatar. Qatar’s emir felt then that he was beginning to realize his dream of replacing Arab leaders and building an “Arab Union” similar to the European Union.
Morsi’s ouster by Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the latter’s decision to declare Hamas a terrorist organization threatened to delay Qatar’s plans. But soon after the emir became the lifeline of Gaza and Hamas, while Gaza and Hamas became the lifeline of Qatari foreign policy.
By persuading Meshal to draft a new political document more moderate than Hamas’ charter and launch it in Doha, trying to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, funding projects in Gaza and giving money to its poor and unemployed, curtailing Gaza’s “March of Return” protests to the necessary minimum and encouraging young Palestinians to adopt a language of human rights and broadcast their suffering in Hebrew and English, like these non-Qatar related websites (“We Are Not Numbers” and bordergone.com) do – the emir hoped to save his ally Hamas and make Israelis, Americans, Europeans and even the hated Egyptians view it as a legitimate political player equal to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel was convinced; it lets Al-Emadi act as Gaza’s “Uncle Sam” and helps him reduce public anger at Hamas and preserve its rule. America was convinced; it lets Qatar replace it in funding UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. Egypt was convinced, through lack of choice; it lets Haniyeh go to Qatar.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was convinced to stop denouncing Qatari aid to Gaza, since he also started getting gifts from Doha. And young Palestinians were convinced that Qatar is the only country which gives them millions of dollars, after all other Arab states have turned a cold shoulder.
At first glance, Qatar’s foreign policy has positive elements which could turn Hamas from a terrorist organization into a political player and partner of the Palestinian Authority in diplomatic negotiations with Israel. But when you examine the words and deeds of Qatari officials in depth, the impression you get is that Qatar doesn’t really intend to make peace between Hamas and the PA, between Israel and the Palestinians or between Egypt and the Palestinians. Someone who allowed Bishara, via the Qatari-funded websites he runs, to incite young Arabs to set up “liberation squares” in Egypt and Israel, encourage Hamas and the PA to wage legal battles against Israel in international forums and depict it as a state that acts like the Nazis; who allowed Al-Qaradawi to publish a religious ruling supporting anti-Israel terror; who was considered close to Osama bin Laden and even gave his family shelter; who funded radical Islamist groups in Syria; whose country is consider sacred ground for terrorists; who cooperates with Turkey in anti-Israel propaganda campaigns; and who doesn’t respect human rights in his own country can’t be considered a true partner for peace.
We need to get the Qataris out of here, and fast. They aren’t honest brokers for either Israelis or Palestinians. They seek to establish an authoritarian Islamist regime in Gaza and the West Bank, not a liberal regime that respects human rights. They buy young Palestinians with aid money and by financing their college educations in Doha, but when those Palestinians return home and dare to criticize Hamas, the Qataris won’t protect them. Young Palestinians are just pieces on the Qatari emir’s chessboard. Everything he does is meant to ensure that nobody, especially not those young people, do anything that would topple Hamas’ rule in Gaza and prevent it from expanding to the West Bank.
We should treat Hamas as a political partner and a partner in the diplomatic process, but we mustn’t strengthen it at the cost of weakening and toppling the PA. Any diplomatic agreement must include both Fatah and Hamas; only with them both as partners can we advance a two-state solution. But the Qataris want an Islamist regime in their own image; they cannot be the patrons.
Ronit Marzan is a researcher in Palestinian politics and society at the University of Haifa’s School of Political Science and a fellow at its Chaikin Geostrategy Institute.
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