By Calev Ben-Dor
In a coordinated move on Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the tiny Gulf state of supporting terrorism. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister demanded Qatar take several steps to restore ties with other key Arab states, including ending its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Yemen, the Maldives and eastern Libya have also broken off relations.
Eli Avidar, a former Israeli representative in Qatar, said that the Arab states most likely decided to squeeze Qatar following their meeting with President Trump, who in his recent speech in Saudi Arabia made an explicit distinction between those countries who support terror and those who oppose it.
Qatar has developed close relations with the West and houses the American Al Udeid Air Base, which includes the United States Central Command. Yet faced with such intense pressure by its neighbours (some of whom could also justifiably be accused of problematic foreign policies), Qatar’s regional direction – which include hosting Al Jazeera, supporting Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, financing the Nusra Front in Syria, and maintaining close ties with Iran – will have to be reoriented. The small Gulf emirate can seemingly no longer have its cake and eat it.
Many Israeli officials responded positively to this chain of events. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said that it showed “the Arab states also understand that the real danger to the entire region is not Israel, but rather Iran,” and that the fear of radical Islamist terror “opens a lot of possibilities for cooperation in the battle against terror.” Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai identified a strengthening of the Sunni alliance, and suggested Israel could play a role in such a regional alliance by resuming dialogue with the Palestinians.
There are certainly positives for Israel in this. Media reports suggest that Qatar recently expelled a number of heads of Hamas’ military wing, including Saleh al-Arouri and Musa Dudin, who are known for their ties to West Bank terror cells. This will weaken Hamas operationally and reduce its capacity to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.
Yet there is a danger for Israel in Qatar’s diplomatic isolation, and it primarily lies in its consequences for Gaza. The humanitarian situation in the Strip remains dire, with severe shortages of water, electricity, and housing as well as 40% unemployment. In a closed meeting in March, head of IDF military intelligence Maj. Gen Herzl Halevi warned Knesset Members that current conditions could lead to an explosion of violence against Israel. Analysts have pointed to the similarity between the situation now and that leading up Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Since Halevi’s warning, the pressure on Gaza has been further ramped up. In April, Palestinian Authority Presdent Mahmoud Abbas reduced the salaries of PA civil servants in the Strip, and subsequently announced the PA would cease paying Gaza’s bill for electricity supplied by Israel.
With its relations with Egypt in dire straits since Sisi’s ascent to power in 2013, Hamas’ main outlet to alleviate diplomatic pressure and financial difficulties has more often than not been Qatar, which served as the chief funder of Gaza’s rehabilitation and often acted, as Yossi Melman recently wrote, as a “pressure valve” for Israel. Israel is well aware of the emirate’s importance. In August 2016, Israeli officials reportedly facilitated Qatari payments to Hamas civil servants in Gaza. In January of this year, millions of pounds worth of fuel was allowed into Gaza from Qatar to power a third generator at Gaza’s power plant in order to provide residents with electricity for eight hours each day (rather than the usual four) for a three-month period.
In short, Qatari payments have often been the main factor preventing an explosion in Gaza. Yet under Saudi and Egyptian pressure, and with the blessing of the Trump Administration, they may disappear.
Whether this vacuum remains void or is filled by the UN or Turkey, a scenario theoretically exists in which the accumulated pressure applied on Hamas by Israel, the PA, Egypt and now Saudi Arabia will cause the Islamist movement to redirect the tens of millions of dollars it currently spends annually on its military build-up towards humanitarian issues instead, and surrender some of its control over the Strip to the PA.
More likely however is that a perfect storm is on the horizon, in which a cash-strapped movement headed by a military-oriented leader, and struggling under the responsibility for almost two million people sees few outlets to alleviate the pressure. In such a scenario, one of two things is likely to happen. The first is that Hamas will draw closer to Iran, a policy decision which has already been put in motion since the recent election of Ismail Haniyeh as director of Hamas’s political bureau. The second is that in yet another (most likely futile) attempt to break the blockade of Gaza and draw international attention to Gaza, Hamas will initiate rocket fire against Israel. Those celebrating Qatar’s upcoming exit from the Palestinian arena should think twice. Without it, the situation can deteriorate quickly.
Calev Ben-Dor is Director of Research at BICOM.