Israel and Qatar have an unlikely partnership for dealing with Gaza

BEHIND THE LINES: Israel-Qatar cooperation in Gaza serves interests of both parties

PALESTINIANS TAKE part in a rally in support of Qatar, inside Qatari-funded construction project ‘Hamad City,’ in the southern Gaza Strip. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
PALESTINIANS TAKE part in a rally in support of Qatar, inside Qatari-funded construction project ‘Hamad City,’ in the southern Gaza Strip.
 A deal brokered by the emirate of Qatar brought the latest round of low-level hostilities between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza to an end on August 31.
The agreement includes the resumption of Qatari aid to the coastal enclave. The projects Doha committed to in brokering the ceasefire, according to regional media reports, include plans to build a power station operated by Qatar, the provision of $34 million for humanitarian aid, provision of 20,000 COVID-19 testing kits by Qatar to the Health Ministry, and a number of initiatives to reduce unemployment in the Gaza Strip.
In other respects, the deal appears to simply restore the status quo that held prior to Hamas’s commencement of the escalation several weeks ago. Concerns by the rulers of Gaza regarding the possible spread of the coronavirus, and Israel’s decision to reduce the electricity supply to Gaza during the escalation, appear to have dampened Hamas’s enthusiasm to continue this round: Thus far, then, just another minor spat in the open-ended standoff between Israel and the Islamist enclave to its southwest.
The role of Qatar and its emissary Mohammad al-Emadi, however, is worthy of further consideration. The small Gulf emirate generally adopts a regional stance antithetical to the Jewish state. During the Arab Spring, its influential Al Jazeera satellite channel fanned the flames of popular Islamist revolt. Its efforts greatly contributed to the brief summer of the Muslim Brotherhood in various parts of the Middle East. It was a strong supporter of the Morsi government in Egypt, which for a moment appeared to be the possible bearer of strategic disaster for Israel, raising the specter of the abrogation of the 1979 peace treaty.
Qatar is a close ally of Turkey, from whose support it has benefited in its ongoing standoff with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indeed, Qatar and Turkey today together constitute the main element of a loose regional alliance bringing together Muslim Brotherhood-associated forces in the region.
Hamas-controlled Gaza is also a part of this gathering. This commonality underlies Qatar’s willingness to effectively underwrite the continued viability of the Hamas territory. Doha also maintains good relations with Iran. It is engaged together with Tehran in the development of the North Dome/South Pars gas field, the largest natural gas field in the world.
Recent reports have asserted that Qatari money has facilitated the provision of weapons to the Hezbollah (full disclosure: this author co-wrote two of these reports).
So with a set of apparently anti-Israel credentials as long as that, how is Qatar able to maintain the level of trust required to act as an apparently successful mediator in the context of Israel and Gaza?
The answer is that starting from entirely different entry points, both Israel and Qatar are today committed to the survival of the Hamas-controlled entity in Gaza.
Qatar’s reasons to support the continued existence of the Hamas-controlled area are fairly self-explanatory. The area constitutes one of the few remaining parts of the Arabic-speaking world still governed by a Muslim Brotherhood-associated movement. The reaction by the old Arab order following the Arab Spring swept away Brotherhood-associated governments in Tunisia and Egypt and defeated a Sunni Islamist insurgency in Syria. Gaza remains as a forlorn pool after the receding of the tide.
Israel’s reasons for this commitment are less immediately obvious, but are also not excessively complex. Jerusalem faced and defeated a Hamas-led insurgency in the West Bank and Gaza in the 2000-2004 period. It then fought a short, destructive but inconclusive war against the Iran-supported Shi’ite Islamists of Hezbollah in 2006.
Since then, Israel has adopted, by default, a policy of seeking deterrence against, rather than destruction of the two Islamist-dominated spaces to its north and southwest.
Regarding Gaza, a determined ground maneuver by a couple of Israeli divisions would be enough to bring about the collapse of the Hamas-led administration. Such a maneuver would probably cost a hundred or more Israeli lives, but its result would be in no doubt. At its conclusion, the Israeli flag would be placed over the rubble of Gaza City, and the Muslim Brotherhood entity would be no more.
Following such a move, Israel would re-acquire responsibility for the lives of the 1.85 million hostile Arab Muslim inhabitants of the Strip. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah would undoubtedly decline to receive the area from a conquering Israeli force.
This, to put it mildly, is not a desired outcome from an Israeli point of view. Reality does not offer an endless menu of alternatives. In effect, the two possibilities available are the scenario described above or something resembling the current status quo. Unsurprisingly, Israel chooses the latter. (The same logic, but on a far more consequential and dangerous level applies incidentally to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon).
There is another level of consideration that also points toward the same option. Hamas domination of Gaza has brought about what now looks like a semi-permanent fissure in the Palestinian Arab national movement.
The resulting political dysfunctionality plays to Israel’s advantage. The fact that one half of the Palestinian division is committed to political Islam increases this advantage. The unpopularity of political Islam among Western political elites and publics, and the domination of half of the split Palestinian camp by an Islamist movement are an asset for Israel. Destruction of the Hamas Gaza enclave would very possibly result in the reunification of the Palestinian camp. This would be accompanied by undoubted return of both regional and Western political and media attention to the now largely dormant Palestinian issue.
The above perspective depends on the notion that deterrence against Islamist movements is possible. Two decades ago, such a notion might have seemed farfetched, given the extreme objectives and ideological fervor of such movements. In 2020, however, the high point of Islamist fervor as a revolutionary force seems to have passed.
In the period 2010-2018, revolutionary political Islam’s moment came. In addition to the aforementioned rise of Muslim Brotherhood-associated movements, the purest and least diluted version of this phenomenon – Islamic State – rose into brief being.
That moment, from the perspective of 2020, looks already distant. Today, there are no truly powerful, independent, grassroots Islamist insurgencies in the Arabic-speaking world. Those small Islamist authorities that remain are dependent on state sponsors, and keen to maintain the trappings of power they have achieved. Were it not so, indeed, it is unlikely Qatar, which enjoyed riding the wave of Islamist fervor for as long as it lasted, would be willing to broker such agreements as the one recently concluded. The agreement offers nothing, after all, for Hamas in return for ceasing the escalation other than the return of the status quo plus increased largesse from Doha itself.
Israel’s current cooperation with Qatar in maintaining Hamas rule in Gaza thus makes sense. The security challenges facing Israel in the period now opening up centrally involve the state-led alliances of Iran and Turkey. Both of these powerful countries combine imperial and revanchist ambitions with a proclaimed commitment to political Islam. An adequate region-wide and strategic response to these challenges is likely to involve the ongoing deterrence of the small and dysfunctional Islamist-controlled areas in the immediate vicinity, rather than their conquest and occupation. On this basis, Qatari involvement in Gaza, alongside that of Israel and Egypt, looks set to continue.