The dramatic schism witnessed last week between a significant bloc of Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia, against the tiny peninsular nation of Qatar, has major regional implications. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and the Maldives all severed political and commercial ties with Qatar. Jordan and Mauritania followed suit shortly thereafter. The draconian measures severely curtail Doha’s ability to conduct air and maritime travel. In addition, nations that severed relations with Doha no longer recognize the Qatari Rial as a valid currency which means that Doha must deplete its foreign currency reserves if it wishes to purchase goods and services.
The punishing Saudi-led initiative, though dramatic, was hardly surprising. Qatar has long adopted policies that were incongruent with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s goals. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states did not look favorably on Qatar’s rapprochement efforts with menacing Shia Iran and neo-Ottoman, meddlesome Turkey. But most irksome for the Sunni states was Qatar’s cynical use of its propaganda media arm, Al Jazeera, to shill for the extremist Muslim Brotherhood.
The issue of Hamas was another sore point where interests between the opposing sides diverged. Qatar is Hamas’ main benefactor. In 2014, it pledged $1b toward reconstruction efforts in Gaza. But much of Qatar’s aid money is skimmed off the top by notoriously corrupt Hamas officials, who maintain rather luxurious lifestyles. Some of the aid money is channeled into military projects, like construction of terror tunnels, rather than legitimate civilian purposes.
Hamas is recognized by the United States and EU as a terrorist organization. During his recent trip to the region, President Trump in an address to several Muslim heads of state lumped Hamas with other recognized terror groups like Hezbollah, ISIS and Al Qaida. The group is a recognized offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, placing it at odds with several moderate Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Last Tuesday, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, explicitly stated that Qatar must stop supporting terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Riyadh and its allies see both groups as destabilizing entities and have repeatedly criticized Doha for paying lip service to the war on terror while at the same time, providing financial, political and logistical support for terrorist organizations.
The Saudi-led effort represents a concerted attempt to squeeze Qatar into making concessions. Undoubtedly, that includes Qatar adopting policies that are more in line with the goals of GCC, namely to thwart Iranian influence and curtail the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The pressure brought to bear by the Saudi initiative is already producing positive results. Qatar has asked several Hamas leaders-in-exile and operatives currently stationed in the country to leave. Hamas has tried to downplay the implications of the Qatari expulsion orders but it’s hard to overlook the ramifications.
But Doha is nevertheless sending out mixed signals. On Saturday, Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, characterized Hamas as “a legitimate resistance movement.” He also said that as an independent country, Qatar had the right to support groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Over the years, Hamas’ allies have whittled down to three, Turkey, Iran and Qatar. Of the three, Qatar provides the terror group with the most financial support. It was hoped that Israel’s recent rapprochement with Turkey would translate into concrete efforts by Ankara to scale back its support for the terror group but this has not materialized. Iran, which remains the world’s premier state-sponsor of terror, continues to funnel money to Hamas despite a brief falling out.
The current economic situation in the Gaza Strip is abysmal. This is largely due to mismanagement, graft and rampant corruption by the Islamist governing authorities. There are chronic electricity shortages with four or five hours of reliable electricity supply on a good day. In addition, youth unemployment hovers at an astonishing 60%. A cut-off of Qatari aid would place enormous pressure on Hamas and lead to further economic decline, which could inexorably lead to widespread discontent among the masses within the Strip.
Hamas rules Gaza with an iron fist and maintains a zero tolerance policy for even minimal dissent. The few who dare challenge Gaza’s theocratic rulers are beaten, jailed and sometimes executed under the guise of being collaborators with “the occupation.” Nevertheless, with so many unemployed youth, and chronic electricity and water shortages, open challenge or even revolt is a real possibility.
Hamas may seek to stave off that predicament by deflecting attention away from the dire economic situation to its age-old bogeyman, the Israelis or in Hamas vernacular, the “Zionist entity.” It could create a crisis by launching rockets into Israel, thereby drawing an Israeli response which could quickly escalate to full blown war. Gaza’s population would then be spoon-fed Hamas crafted propaganda and Israel would then be blamed for the inevitable destruction and misery that is sure to follow. Such cynical exploitation of the masses represents a ruthless Hamas tactic calculated solely on the basis maintaining the group’s survival and governing authority. The welfare of the population is of secondary or even tertiary concern.
But the Hamas wag the dog tactic is a double-edged sword. Since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Israel was forced to battle Hamas on three occasions – 2008⁄9, 2012 and 2014. On each occasion, Hamas drew the short end of the stick and was decimated militarily. Nevertheless, during the 2014 campaign, Israel came under immense political pressure from the Obama administration to cease hostilities.
Obama held up a shipment of Hellfire missiles slated to be delivered to Israel and his Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) briefly ordered the suspension of commercial flights to Ben Gurion airport. Many suspected that the FAA action was implemented under orders from Obama as a pressure tactic against Israel to induce it into accepting a ceasefire. In addition, during the course of the conflict, a disturbing transcript of an exchange between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu surfaced in which the American president browbeat Netanyahu over his reluctance to accept a ceasefire, brokered by hostile Turkey and Qatar, under less than desirable terms. His secretary of state, John Kerry, was picked up on hot mic blasting Israel with sarcastic references to Israel’s “helluva pinpoint operation.”
In sum, Obama’s fiercely hostile attitude toward Israel and his attempts to hamper Israel’s war efforts provided Hamas with some measure of political cover, and prevented an even more severe mauling than already inflicted on the terror group. But there is a new sheriff in town, one not inclined toward appeasing Islamists. Should Hamas begin stirring the pot, expect the administration to give Israel a freer hand to do what is necessary to crush Hamas.
Undoubtedly, Hamas is aware of the fact that it no longer has a sympathetic ear in the White House and many of its former Arab allies, including Egypt, have abandoned it. It is also cognizant of the fact that Israel’s military capabilities are unmatched in the Middle East and any provocation will invite devastating retaliation from which it may not recover.
In sum, if Qatar capitulates, Hamas will suffer and may consequently be forced to wag the dog to preserve its survival but the very war that it provokes may spell its demise. The unfolding drama between Doha and Riyadh has placed Hamas in a bit of a pickle and it’s safe to assume that its leaders are not sleeping well these days.
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