WASHINGTON – No government has supported Hamas throughout its war with Israel more stridently than Qatar, hosting its leaders, funding its militarization, and, in recent weeks, blocking cease-fire efforts on Gaza brokered by Egypt and supported by the US.
That might cause a modest rift between Washington and Doha, on opposite ends of the spectrum of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But neither country is so invested in challenging the policies of the other on Hamas to shake the foundations of the US-Qatar relationship, broadened well beyond what transpires in the Gaza Strip.
The tiny state jutting into the Arabian Gulf, sitting on an estimated 25 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, hosts one of the most strategically important US military footholds in the entire Middle East.
Al-Udeid Air Base, west of the capital, is a forward base for United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, headquarters for Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most recently, against Islamic State, an organization with sympathizers among Qatar’s elite.
Vast American infrastructure and key assets throughout the country require comprehensive security coordination with the Qatari government. Indeed, despite several threats cast throughout the past decade, no terrorist attack has been successful against US targets on Qatari soil.
Security and reliability from Qatar do not come free: On July 14 in Washington, less than a week after Operation Protective Edge began, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Qatari counterpart together signed an $11 billion arms package.
Within mere hours that day, in Qatar, Hamas’s leader-in-refuge Khaled Mashaal rejected international calls for any cease-fire.
“We reject today and will reject in the future,” Mashaal said.
Of greater concern than Qatar’s targeted support for Hamas – a group listed by the US as a terrorist organization, but which is focused more on local jihad than on global terrorism – the Obama administration fears that Qatar has a broader strategy of support for Sunni extremists, from Hamas in Gaza, the Nusra Front in Syria and now Islamic State across the region.
“It’s hard to work out whether Qatar or Qatari individuals are also funding ISIS [Islamic State],” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“ISIS funding is thought to come from rich Gulf individuals, although I suspect there is government connivance.”
Since the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State, Qatar has taken public steps to distance itself from the group. Last week, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said to news outlets in London – from where Foley’s murder allegedly hails – that his country rejects extremism in all forms.
“Qatar does not support extremist groups, including ISIS, in any way,” Attiyah said. “We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions.”
“The vision of extremist groups for the region is one that we have not, nor will ever, support in any way,” he continued.
Just days after Foley’s killing, Obama’s national security council highlighted several press statements from prominent Muslim leaders condemning Islamic State, including editorial in Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Qatari newspaper, which called the group a “cancerous” anti-Muslim terrorist organization.
None of this has dissuaded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from drawing a straight line between Islamic State and Hamas, made up of Qatari influence and support. Netanyahu has called them branches of the same tree of Sunni extremism, anti-humanism and fundamentalist Islamism, to the frustration of his critics, who see key tactical differences between the groups.
Qatari officials have passively denied funding Hamas, though its support is widely recognized.
Gaza’s only power station had been fueled at the bequest of Qatar, though that facility was destroyed last month by the Israeli air force. Israel has accused Qatar of providing Hamas with direct funding, construction assistance and supplies for its tunnels into Jewish towns and kibbutzim.
“I see no effort by Washington to pressure Qatar to stop actively supporting Hamas,” Henderson added.
After several years of seeking a benefactor, with waning support from an Iran distracted by Syria and its pursuit of a global nuclear accord, Hamas is likely to comply with Qatari political demands as it negotiates through intermediaries with Israel. Ironically, the Israeli government is less likely to compromise on its blockade of Gaza should Hamas retain a benefactor willing to sell the group arms and supplies for terrorist infrastructure.