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Gaza set to become scene of Egypt-Qatar tug of war

The Gaza Strip and Hamas are attracting attention from both sides as the Gulf crisis grows, but they might have to choose between longtime supporter Qatar on one side and the UAE, Egypt and Mohammed Dahlan on the other.
Palestinians take part in a rally in support of Qatar, inside Qatari-funded construction project 'Hamad City', in the southern Gaza Strip, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa - RTX39TF1

RAMALLAH, West Bank — It appears the long-besieged Gaza Strip might finally benefit as alliances continue to shift in the Middle East. Gaza, ruled by Hamas, is actually being wooed by both sides in the Qatar crisis.

Hamas concluded a set of meetings earlier this month with dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan and the Egypt-backed United Arab Emirates (UAE). Those meetings give the Gaza Strip hope for a breakthrough in its decadelong blockade by Israel and Egypt.

This breakthrough opens up several possibilities: a $100 million power plant that would take 18 months to build; the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt at the end of August; and the activation of the community reconciliation committee that was established under the 2011 reconciliation agreement concluded in Cairo. The committee, backed by Hamas and its one-time foe Dahlan, will settle the cases of those killed in the 2007 inter-Palestinian conflict by financially compensating their families. All of these projects are to be funded by the UAE, where Dahlan lives.

These understandings benefit all parties concerned. Hamas will strengthen its rule in Gaza, the electricity crisis will be solved, and the Rafah crossing will be opened, thus facilitating the travel of individuals and the movement of goods to and from the Gaza Strip. The arrangement could also restore social calm once the families of those who fell prey to the Palestinian division are financially compensated, thus preventing any retaliatory operations to avenge the deaths of their relatives. Meanwhile, Egyptian security will benefit, as Hamas' Ministry of Interior announced June 28 that it started setting up a buffer zone on its border. What’s more, the understandings will allow Dahlan to return to Palestinian politics and deal a blow to his rival, Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, who dismissed Dahlan from Fatah.

The UAE will not only seek to strengthen the status of its allies (Egypt and Dahlan) in Gaza but will also work to expel Qatar from Gaza — despite Qatar's long-time financial generosity toward Hamas and the strip. This comes as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have cut ties with Qatar due to its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its hostility toward the UAE-backed Egyptian regime.

“Hamas does not want to lose any side," political author and analyst Talal Awkal told Al-Monitor. "It wants to retain the Qatari support and gain the Egyptian and Emirati support, but this is no longer possible in light of the regional crises, which will prompt it to pick a side.”

Qatar has been one of the most prominent supporters of Hamas since Egypt and Israel imposed a siege on Gaza in 2007; Qatar has financed social, health and economic projects. These projects include paying about $12 million to address the electricity problem in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, the construction of large residential projects such as the Hamad residential city and other humanitarian donations.

However, “Hamas considers Egypt, including its allies, to be its best option [at the moment]. It would be in [Hamas'] interest to implement understandings with Egypt at a time when Qatar cannot open the Rafah crossing or solve the electricity crisis let alone maintain Hamas’ control over Gaza,” Awkal added.

If Egypt and its allies want to expel Qatar from Gaza, they will have to rely on the UAE’s financial role. “Cairo made the decision of easing the siege on Gaza for political and security calculations. Consequently, Hamas’ execution of the understandings will prompt the UAE to provide support for Gaza,” Awkal said.

Qatar seems to have realized the Egyptian-Emirati desire to expel it from Gaza. Qatari Ambassador Mohammed al-Emadi on July 7 visited the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders and announced July 10 that his country would continue to support the Palestinian people, especially the besieged Gaza Strip, despite the crisis his country is contending with.

While Qatar made no comment about Egypt's rapprochement with Hamas, it confirmed its continued support for the Gaza Strip and continues to host Hamas leaders.

As understandings between Hamas, Egypt and Dahlan advanced, Qatari and Turkish media outlets kept issuing related reports. On July 26, Qatari newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed published an article by Jordanian journalist Issa al-Shuaibi accusing Hamas of being the “de facto authority” and pointing out that Hamas “is willing to change its political alliances, most importantly with Qatar, in return for the food it is being offered by the UAE and Egypt. Dahlan's offers to Gaza are mere attempts by Egypt and the UAE to pull the Gaza Strip out of the ‘Qatari influence.’”

Turkey's Yeni Safak newspaper said July 26 that Dahlan and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed are setting up a military training camp in Gaza for hundreds of people in Sinai who then will be sent to Qatar and Turkey to carry out attacks.

While Hamas so far has sought to distance itself from the regional crisis, Ahmed Yousef, who was a political adviser to former Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, denied in an interview with Al-Monitor that Egypt had asked Hamas to cut off its relations with Qatar to proceed with the rapprochement.

As for Hamas' decision to choose between its relations with Qatar and its understandings with Egypt and its allies, Yousef said, “We have no intention of siding with one Arab country against another because our goal is to garner all the Arab support possible for the Palestinian cause. So any alliance with Egypt and the UAE at the expense of Qatar or Turkey will lead the Palestinian cause to lose great momentum, and our relations with Egypt do not infer a rift with Qatar and Turkey.”

He added, “Hamas will not side with an Arab party against another, and this is an issue we ought to clarify to all countries."

He pointed out that “Qatar confirmed that its projects are ongoing in Gaza and that all its commitments will be completed according to plan.”

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas leader, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas does not accept that someone asks it to reject Qatari aid and does not allow anyone to interfere in its policies. The movement is keen on keeping good relations with Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, without being part of the regional axes or the Arab differences.”

Israeli journalist Yoni Ben Menachem, in his July 19 article on the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs blog, wrote that the Gaza Strip is about to become the center of a tug of war between Egypt and Qatar, as Egypt will not agree to Qatar maintaining a foothold in Gaza. Menachem added that Egypt and Dahlan’s mission will be to prevent Qatari Ambassador Emadi from resuming Qatar’s projects in Gaza, while the Hamas leadership will have to decide on a specific direction as far as the continued presence of Qatar in Gaza is concerned.

A leader in the Dahlan following, Naima Sheikh, told Al-Monitor, “The understandings reached by Hamas and Dahlan did not tackle the relationship between Hamas and Qatar and did not include any demands to cut off relations with Qatar, because this involves Hamas alone.”

However, if Hamas' understandings with Egypt and Dahlan are to proceed, then the Gaza Strip will turn into a competition between those two on one side and Qatar on the other, so one side can isolate the other. This scenario will eventually unfold unless Hamas is forced to choose between the Egypt-UAE side and the Qatari side.

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