Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh (R) and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani arrive at a cornerstone laying ceremony in the southern Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On December 11, Israel announced that it had discovered and destroyed a terrorist tunnel stretching from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip eastward into Israel.
Two kilometers west of the entrance to the tunnel, Palestinian families are enjoying their new apartments in a residential city built by Qatar. There are basketball courts and a small public park with water fountains. A mosque and administrative buildings are surrounded by 1,060 apartments.
It could be a residential development in the Gulf populated by expats relaxing by the water. But it is in Gaza, thanks to a half-billion dollar investment by Doha. A document obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post reveals the extent of Qatar’s reconstruction efforts.
In October 2014, in the aftermath of the Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge), the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) estimated that more than 100,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed in the fighting, affecting 600,000 people. A total of $5.4 billion was pledged toward reconstruction efforts at an international conference in Egypt.
Two years later, only 51% of the pledged money had been disbursed. According to research by the Brookings Institution, Qatar was one of the biggest spenders investing in Gaza, with $216 million sent to the Strip by December 2016, part of a budget of $1.4b. it has pledged and spent in the last five years on Palestinians.
Qatar’s support for Gaza goes back more than a decade. It has hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal since 2012 and had a relationship with him since he first briefly moved there in 1999. In 2012, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani visited the Strip, becoming the first Arab leader to go to Gaza since Hamas took power in 2007. He pledged $400m. at the time. Hamad abdicated in 2013 and his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani became emir. Tamim has advanced the reconstruction projects through the Gaza Reconstruction Committee, which was established in September 2012.
The Post obtained access to a February 2017 report from the GRC. According to the 56-page glossy booklet, Qatar has completed 94 projects in Gaza at the cost of $312m. and is continuing to build 12 more projects at a cost of $95m. Its showcase project is the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Residential City next to Khan Yunis. Laid out like a massive construction project would be in Qatar, it is modeled on the Gulf style of development. The first phase included 1,060 apartments and cost $54m. Phase II added an additional 1,264 apartments.
Israel has long known that cement imported to Gaza is diverted to be used by Hamas for building terrorist infrastructure, including tunnels. In a May 2016 speech, then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold said that for every 100 sacks of cement imported to the Gaza Strip, “only five or six are transferred to civilians.” He said that of the 4 million tons of building materials transferred to the Strip between October 2015 and May 2016, some of it had been “seized and used to build new attack tunnels.”
Qatar’s role in Gaza’s reconstruction puts it in a bind. Since June 2017 its neighbors in the Gulf have severed relations, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha’s support for Hamas is a central dispute between it and Riyadh.
With Hamas also isolated by Egypt’s cutting off of tunnels stretching from Sinai, the Strip is increasingly isolated. In October, Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement aimed at ending that. Border posts were supposed to be transferred to Palestinian Authority control and the PA was supposed to return to Gaza. That has not happened and there are concerns the agreement will break down like previous ones did.
To find land for these thousands of apartments that should house tens of thousands of people, the Qataris sought open spaces in Gaza. They found land next to Khan Yunis that was previously the site of the Israeli settlements of Ganei Tal, Katif and Netzer Hazani. Aerial photos show 80 large buildings constructed northeast of Khan Yunis. In contrast to the natural sprawl around the Palestinian city, with large family homes and fields, the Hamad suburb looks more like Israel’s Modi’in, a large planned city.
According to the brochure, the Qataris also built a hospital devoted to rehabilitation for people with disabilities named for Hamad bin Khalifa. They invested in reconstruction of more than 1,000 homes for a cost of $50m. They also brought Qatari expertise at road building with eight major road projects stretching over 36 kilometers. Some of these include new boulevards, such as the rebuilding of Salah Eldeen Road. The reconstruction committee also focused on building smaller residential complexes at Beit Lahiya (80 apartments), Johar al-Deek (100) and Deir el-Balah (120).
In May, Muhammad al-Amadi, the Qatari envoy to Gaza, attended an opening ceremony for some of the apartments in the second phase of Hamad City and handed over the apartments to locals. He also announced the construction of a second “city” modeled on the first to be called “Al-Amal City for his highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa.” So far it consists of two phases with 194 apartments.
Amadi said in July that “Despite the crisis in Qatar, we will continue to support you [Gaza].” He pledged to continue with new projects and complete those in progress. These include agricultural laboratories, a rehab center in Khan Yunis, veterinary clinics in Beit Lahiya and Rafah, agricultural access to border areas in the southern Gaza Strip, wells, storm water ponds, a stadium, a giant playground, a “Palace of Justice,” and the restoration of the Great Omari Mosque in Gaza City.
Qatar has not only embarked on an ambitious number of projects to give Gaza a face-lift, it has also paid salaries. According to Brookings research published in August 2017, in July 2016 Qatar spent $30m. to pay local salaries. The report said that this was for a “considerable section of Gaza’s public servants.”
In April Yousef al-Ghariz, an adviser to Amadi, spoke with Al-Monitor about the difficulties Qatar has faced to bring in materials for its projects. “Given the blockade and the repeated closure of border crossings in recent years, the committee has liaised with outside parties in order to bring in the required raw materials.”
This includes coordination with Israel, which Ghariz called “purely technical.” The Qataris also work with the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Public Works and Housing and its minister Mufid al-Hasayneh. “We don’t get involved in any internal Palestinian political disputes,” Ghariz told Al-Monitor. Amadi also met with the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Nikolay Mladenov in July 2017.
Israel is growing closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recent years, and Qatar has attempted to lobby pro-Israel groups in the United States in the last months to encourage a change in perception of the emirate. In November, Malcolm Hoenein, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jerusalem Organizations, revealed he had been holding secret talks with Qatar over the return of two Israeli citizens held in Gaza. Qatar would like to use this leverage with Hamas to increase the influence in Gaza that it has obtained through its development projects. Otherwise its effort may become another failed endeavor.