The Gulf Arab state of Qatar, with just over two million people, is playing an outsized role on the world stage these days, dipping its fingers into various conflicts in the region.
The Sunni country backs a number of Islamist groups in the region, including some of the ones fighting in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and its Palestinian branch, Hamas.
Qatar uses its Al Jazeera media company to project influence on the “Arab street”; at present, it is using it to support Hamas’s narrative and to counter fellow Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shi’ite Iran is perhaps Qatar’s greatest adversary in the Middle East, and amid sectarian strife raging in the region, Qatar wants to prevent Iran from intruding on its turf.
Hamas is a case in point, as the Gulf country is seeking to woo it solidly into the Sunni camp and away from Iran.
Since Hamas leaders voiced their support for the Sunni- dominated Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad, they were forced to move their headquarters from Damascus – and as a result, Iran lowered its support for the organization.
Now that Hamas finds itself isolated – under Israeli attack on one side and boxed in by a hostile Egypt on the other – it is looking for help from its two significant Sunni allies, Qatar and Turkey. Media reports also indicate that a rapprochement may be under way between Iran and Hamas because of the group’s dire circumstances.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that a statement by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday about Qatar supporting Hamas was striking and matter-of-fact.
“This is how Hamas was able to afford the purchase of these advanced tunnel facilities,” said Schanzer.
“Currently Qatar and Turkey represent the pro-Hamas negotiation bloc as the Arab and world powers haggle over the fate of Hamas,” he continued. “Qatar would like to negotiate a happy ending for Hamas, which would include open borders and greater strength for the movement over time.”
Powers that traditionally oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, are less eager to see a Hamas with a free hand, he said.
“One reason we have seen such little progress on the cease-fire front is that there is a real tug-of-war happening in the Middle East over Hamas,” he asserted. “Qatar is at the center of that.”