RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Hamas movement sees in the recent Gulf reconciliation an opportunity to break the deadlock with Saudi Arabia.
On Jan. 5, Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani headed to Saudi Arabia to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, where an agreement was reached among Gulf allies to end the boycott imposed on Qatar since 2017.
Relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated since 2017, with Saudi media and officials — including then Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir — accusing the Palestinian movement of terrorism. In early 2019, Saudi authorities launched a wide-scale arrest campaign against Hamas members and leaders — most notably former Hamas representative in Saudi Arabia Mohammed al-Khodari and his son — accusing them of raising funds for the movement, and brought them before the courts.
Meanwhile, Hamas has developed strong relations with Doha over the past years. Qatar has hosted some Hamas officials and provided ongoing financial aid to the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas. The Hamas-Qatari rapprochement angered Riyadh, which demanded Qatar expel all Hamas members residing in its territory and freeze their bank accounts in exchange for lifting the 2017 boycott.
In a recent attempt to break the rupture with Saudi Arabia, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh praised Saudi King King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis and achieve reconciliation. In a Jan. 9 statement, Haniyeh said the agreement to end the crisis is an important step to strengthen joint action for the benefit of the Palestinian cause in light of the Israeli occupation, the Gaza siege, the Judaization efforts and the attempts to liquidate the cause.
For his part, Ahmad Bahar, the first deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, delivered on Jan. 12 a message to the chairman of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Sheikh, calling for the release of Palestinian political detainees in Saudi Arabia, while at the same time praising the Gulf reconciliation.
This message coincided with the visit of an official Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh to Doha on Jan. 10. During meetings with Qatari officials, the delegation praised the Gulf reconciliation and discussed the situation in the Palestinian territories, particularly the efforts to promote national unity and hold the Palestinian general elections.
In this context, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “We should not forget that Saudi Arabia has done wrong to the Palestinian cause in every sense and secretly normalized with the [Israeli] occupation under the Trump administration.”
“The Saudi mistakes include severing ties with Qatar, which maintained relations with the Palestinian people in Gaza and the resistance and did not yield to Trump’s pressure,” he stated.
Commenting on the Gulf reconciliation, Zahar said, “We wish that such a rupture never existed. We hope this reconciliation is a genuine and tactical one, and that such an experience will never be repeated with the change in international policies.”
“We support a united Gulf street that backs the Palestinian people and denies [Israel’s] rights to our territory. We also support the resumption of relations between countries, be it Qatar or any other country. Yet Qatar needs to be cautious, because what happened (the reconciliation) is founded on interests rather than principles. Thus, things could change at any moment.”
Zahar indicated, “Saudi Arabia took a stance against us although we did not do any wrong. The Palestinians who were detained in Saudi Arabia had been residing in the kingdom for years, collecting money with the Saudi regime’s consent and knowledge. These funds did not go to Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ armed wing) or any other armed wing in Gaza. They were given to the poor and martyrs’ families. Their detention reflected a sudden change in the Saudi policy.”
Meanwhile, the Hamas messages seem to fall on deaf ears among Saudi leaders, especially since mediation efforts between the two parties collapsed in January 2020 after Saudi Arabia asked that Hamas solve its problems with the United States before any reconciliation is achieved. This would mean consenting to the Quartet for Middle East Peace’s decisions and recognizing Israel, reported Arabi 21.
Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor that Hamas cannot give up Arab support, and although its officials have been arrested and brought before the judiciary in Saudi Arabia, the movement is still convinced that it is still possible to have a dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Based on that, Haniyeh’s message was delivered in the hope that Saudi Arabia accepts the request that all charges directed against the detainees, most notably Khodari, are dropped, he added.
“The Gulf reconciliation will have an impact on the Palestinian cause. Yet we will have to wait and see whether or not this impact is positive,” Sawaf said.
Ibrahim Abrash, a writer, political analyst and political science professor at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor that the Gulf reconciliation is still fresh and could suffer a setback at any time. He believes that should Saudi Arabia accept the Hamas request to release the detainees and improve relations, Qatar would assume a mediator role in exchange for a price that Hamas would need to pay.
Explaining what this price could be, Abrash said Saudi Arabia wants Hamas to support the kingdom in several issues, including in the war in Yemen. It may also ask Hamas to provide it with security information that could help it (Saudi Arabia) confront terrorist groups, and intelligence on Hezbollah and Iran, he added.
Hamas is making it clear that it seeks to improve its relations with Arab countries, but it seems it is not ready to pay a price in return. Saudi Arabia is placing conditions that are in line with the regional axis that has good relations with Israel and considers Iran its No. 1 enemy. So Hamas may not be ready to meet those demands in light of its strong alliance with Iran, which could mean the rupture with Saudi Arabia will continue despite the diplomatic action.