Opinion

How Qatar Could Trigger the Next Hamas-Israel Conflict

Qatari cash aid for Gaza has kept a fragile peace between Hamas and Israel. With Doha now stalling its downpayments, Hamas is launching incendiary devices, Israel is shutting the border and a major escalation is brewing

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
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Gazans supporting Qatar near a mosque funded by Doha, Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 12, 2017
Gazans supporting Qatar near a mosque funded by Doha, Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 12, 2017Credit: Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

Like tentative painkillers that pacify a patient but provide no remedy, Qatar’s cash-for-calm in Gaza has provided some quiet since they were instituted in November 2018. But they cultivated a dangerous addiction along the way.

Now it seems that Qatar might end its generous bribes, right when the need for aid is at its zenith. What will follow will be Gaza kicking and screaming for a pacifying dose – and that could lead to disaster. 

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Every time there’s a delay in the Qatari cashflow, it can be felt on the Gaza-Israel border. And the last few weeks is no exception. 

Sunday night, Israel struck an empty Hamas watchtower adjacent to Gaza’s perimeter fence. The airstrike came in retaliation to the launching of primitive incendiary kites and balloons towards empty Israeli fields in close proximity to Gaza, which caused two small fires. Monday evening, Israel closed the border with Gaza, in response to those provocations.

Why Israel targeted Hamas – giving Gazans another sleepless night – is clear: to pinch its ear to do a better job at policing Israel’s blockade and preventing any Gazan groups from stirring up a fuss in Israel’s south. This was the second time Israel had bombed Gaza in four days: the first strike was also in response to the launch of incendiary objects over the border.

Masked Palestinians prepare flammable objects before attaching them to balloons to be flown toward Israel as incendiary devices. Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. August 8, 2020
Masked Palestinians prepare flammable objects before attaching them to balloons to be flown toward Israel as incendiary devices. Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. August 8, 2020.Credit: AFP

Israel’s Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, warned that "whoever tests Israel will be hit hard." Hamas responded by firing eight experimental rockets into the sea Monday, delivering a parallel warning to Gantz.

Hamas is open about its use of incendiaries to "send a message" to Israel and the Qataris – get the cash flowing. 

For Hamas, the Qatari cash and small steps alleviating the blockade are rewards brokered by Israel for ensuring quiet on the border. But the value of those rewards is diminishing dramatically, and the militants’ patience is wearing thin.

Hamas is facing pressure from both the broker and source of that financial aid. From Israel, Defense Minister Benny Gantz is trying to tie Gaza "flourishing" to Hamas releasing Israelis it holds captive. Hamas would never comply with a condition like this: they are essential leverage for a future prisoner swap that would force Israel to release Palestinians it holds – which would win Hamas a substantial popularity boost.

On the donor side, Qatar’s monthly aid to Gaza was delayed this month and its formal course ends in September – and there have been no signs that it’s about to win another six-month renewal. 

Qatar has plowed more than $1 billion into Gaza since 2012; its conditional aid (cash for no escalation) has been in force for two years. But Doha doesn’t want to fund the Hamas-Israel ceasefire forever, not least when Qatar has just committed $50 million to Lebanon for reconstruction after the massive Beirut explosion.

Khalifa al-Kuwari, director of the Qatar Fund for Development, cuts the ribbon during the opening ceremony of a new hospital in Gaza City, April 22, 2019.
Khalifa al-Kuwari, director of the Qatar Fund for Development, cuts the ribbon during the opening ceremony of a new hospital in Gaza City, April 22, 2019. Credit: AP

By investing in, or tolerating, small-scale provocations at the border, Hamas has devised a solid channel to communicate its growing frustration to Israel and international mediators.

This provocative violence differs from Hamas’s traditional armed resistance: it’s symbolic, less disruptive, less spectacular (but still engages the media attention that Palestinian non-violence depressingly fails to attract), and well calibrated to pressure Israel, but without being militant enough to give Israel an excuse for a major escalation. The violence can be modulated, contingent upon the delivery of aid, or its non-arrival.

So instead of attacking Israel with locally-manufactured projectiles, Hamas’s new instrument of pressure on Israel are kites and balloons tied to incendiary devices which float over the border into Israel. The periodic resumption of this provocative violence has helped expedite Qatari cash entering Gaza. 

This time, though, Qatar is showing no intention of renewing its aid flow. Propelled by popular pressure, and as a last resort to push for aid, Hamas will have to go further and engage in a more severe escalation with Israel to fight for Gaza’s survival.

Although Qatar’s monthly $100 handouts make a lot of people happy, Gaza’s general population despises Hamas’ whole mechanism of provocations-for-bribes, and is also deeply skeptical of Qatar’s conditional aid. From the co-founders of the Great Return March, to Hamas members, and even its leaders, they see this aid-for-calm apparatus as unsustainable, tentative and insufficient. They call it "painkillers" and "anaesthetics" aimed at muting Gaza’s cry to actually live not just subsist. 

Security forces loyal to Hamas organize people crowding as they queue outside the central post office in Gaza City to receive financial aid from the Qatari government given to impoverished Palestinian families, January 26, 2019.
Security forces loyal to Hamas organize crowds outside Gaza City's central post office to receive financial aid from the Qatari government. January 2019Credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP

The bare cash offers no opportunity for economic or developmental progress on the ground. The perception that ‘help’ of this kind is both a transient band-aid and a deception is what prompted protesters to hurl rocks at the vehicle of Qatar’s envoy in November 2018. Two months later, Qatar forced Hamas to distribute the cash to tens of thousands of poor families – but prohibited payment to its own employees.

Gaza is a tool for Qatar, and Hamas know this only too well. Gaza’s own interests aren’t Qatar’s priority. It was at Israel’s request, and with the Trump White House’s blessing, that Qatari aid came to Gaza in the first place. Israel wanted to put in place a mechanism to put the brakes on Gaza’s popular rebellion, the Great Return March. The head of the Mossad even visited Qatar in February this year to convince its government to keep funding Gaza.

How does aid to Gaza fit into Doha’s wider game? Through the aid flow, Qatar hopes to grow its regional profile and position itself as a significant player in the international community. It also hopes to score points in D.C.; to position itself in a better light than neighboring Gulf states – and one sure way of doing that is to prove its relevance in ensuring Israel’s security. 

The UAE recently made a similar attempt to use Palestinian needs to court Israel and the U.S. administration, when, in an unprecedented move, it sent two planes loaded with medical supplies for the Palestinians to land at Ben-Gurion airport. But PA President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to be a bridge for Arab world normalization with Israel, and together with the Emiratis’ strained relations with Hamas, their role in the Palestinian territories has been limited.

A cargo plane operated by Etihad Airways offloads aid related to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for Palestinians, at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel May 19, 2020.
A cargo plane operated by Etihad Airways offloads aid to fight coronavirus for Palestinians, at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel May 19, 2020.Credit: ISRAEL AIRPORTS AUTHORITY/ REU

But beggars can’t be choosers, and Hamas is too direly in need to say no to donors, no matter who they are or what their core motivation is. 

Even if Qatar’s aid is just a pacifying dose, it has managed to keep life going in Gaza at a minimal level, at a time where Palestinian resources are being squeezed and drained by Israel, the Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority’s stubbornness.

Since its decision to halt both security and civil coordination with Israel in May 2020 in response to looming annexation, the PA has refused to receive its tax revenues from Israel, which has meant in turn that for the last three months, tens of thousands of PA employees haven’t been receiving their full salaries. The PA's conflation of civil and security affairs is akin to shooting its own people in the foot, all for the sake of grand symbolism.

Qatari aid and PA salaries are two of the three primary sources of income propping up Gaza’s compromised and besieged economy -the other is the salaries of UNRWA employees. Hamas then generates tax revenues from small-scale economic activities to pay its civil servants.

A ball of fire follows an Israeli airstrike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in response to a Hamas rocket launch towards Israel. August 3, 2020
A ball of fire follows an Israeli airstrike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in response to a Hamas rocket launch towards Israel. August 3, 2020.Credit: AFP

With UNRWA massively defunded, the PA unable to pay its employees in full and now Qatar’s aid coming close to an end, Gaza’s purchasing power will erode, crashing whatever is left of its suffocated economy.

The great despair ensuing from this alarming impoverishment will boost  fertile ground for a major escalation. It will spread the sentiment that, this time, "we really have nothing to lose." And that will be a sentiment held not only in Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, but amongst average Gazans, who have been softened up to the idea of another war as a way to crash the current system which offers only a slow death anyway.

International players like Qatar have contributed to sustaining an economy of violence in Gaza, with Israel’s blockade, Palestinian factionalism and Hamas’ rule as key protagonists. Humanitarian aid itself now legitimates a form of control over and torture of Palestinians: minimally subsidizing Gazans so they’re barely keeping their heads above the water, but constantly threatening to pull them under. And now Doha may do just that – pull out of Gaza and turn their backs as Gazans drown.

Unless the international community musters the courage necessary to put an end to the blockade on Gaza, they remain obliged at the minimum to prevent Gaza’s demise. And to those other Gulf states so eager to criticize Qatar’s actions: step in and fill the funding gap instead of carping at Doha – before the border explodes.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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