Israel Pulse

Saudi visit to Israel angers Hamas

Article Summary
The Hamas movement is worried that a Saudi general's visit to Israel signifies a rapprochement between the two countries at the expense of Gaza relief efforts.

Hamas has called on Saudi Arabia to prevent the normalization of relations with Israel. The appeal, which went up on Hamas' website July 31, raised eyebrows among those who understand Hamas' complicated situation and the importance of tightening relations with Saudi Arabia. The leaders of the movement, who only a year ago thanked Allah for their honorable reception at the palace of the Saudi king, now dare to rebuke the king for his relations with Israel?

Relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia grew tighter in the past year following the nuclear agreement between six world powers and Tehran. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who succeeded his father, then decided on a surprising strategic move and invited the leaders of Hamas, who were then persona non grata in Riyadh, to a meeting at his palace. From the king's standpoint, tightened relations with Hamas — after long years of hostility for its support by Tehran — would enable the Saudis to get closer to the Sunni nations and allow it direct influence on the movement controlling Gaza. Saudi Arabia already has a close relationship with the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

"This is Saudi Arabia's diplomatic path: to bring close any faction, movement, organization or state in the Arab world to distance them as much as possible from Tehran," one of the leaders of the Fatah movement in the West Bank told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. According to him, the Saudi king has no interest in a foothold in the Palestinian territories, but through monetary aid amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars to Gaza and Ramallah, the Saudis hope to be able to serve as a fair and influential moderator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and that one day the two sides will be receptive to the 2002 Saudi initiative for resolving the conflict — the Arab Peace Initiative, which is still on the table.

In recent years, Hamas has lost most of the sponsors that have helped it function and hold on to its rule in the Gaza Strip by force. After the bitter disappointment in Qatar, which did not keep its extravagant promises to Hamas after the crisis with Iran, Hamas leaders discovered that even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unreliable. Turkey’s reconciliation agreement in June with Israel did not bring about the lifting of the siege on Gaza, despite the promises made.

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For Hamas, it seems that after all these disappointments, it can count only on Saudi Arabia to deliver the promised aid on time, aid that the movement requires to maintain its hold on Gaza.

Last year, a mission of Hamas leaders headed by Hamas' political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal arrived in Riyadh. The meeting took place at the king's palace in Riyadh, which gave Hamas leaders the sense that the Saudi king decided on the strategic move of tightening relations with them. He received the mission for talks and even promised its leaders comprehensive aid to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip as well as a steady flow of cash to ease the situation of Gaza residents.

For Meshaal and the other Hamas leaders, who had also visited Tehran in the past, this was a surprising life preserver thrown to them that saved the movement from economic collapse and loss of control over Gaza in view of the massive pressure from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

After this long preamble, we ask what led the leaders of the movement to publicly call on Saudi Arabia to refrain from normalizing relations with Israel. Did the hand of the man who composed the "announcement of rebuke" shake as he wrote it? Did he carefully consider the ramifications of provoking the Saudi sponsor? Was he aware of the danger that the wrong phrasing could anger Salman?

A Fatah source who spoke with Al-Monitor argued that the decision to "sting" Saudi Arabia following the visit of retired Saudi Gen. Anwar Eshki to Israel and his publicized meeting with the director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dore Gold, was not made carelessly. In his estimation, Hamas leaders carefully considered the significance of this move.

Eshki's Israel visit was received in Gaza and Qatar (where Meshaal resides) with great concern. In Hamas' full message, the movement argued that Saudi Arabia is normalizing relations with Israel and in effect accepts the continuing siege on Gaza and forgives Israel for its aggressive actions, including entering sites holy to Islam (meaning Al-Aqsa Mosque). It seems that with this phrasing, Hamas leaders hoped not to break all relations with Saudi Arabia and to ensure that its support of the organization in Gaza won't diminish and its funding won't be cut off or be damaged.

The decision to formulate a message that can only be seen as a light rebuke of the Saudi king was made out of grave concern that Saudi Arabia is growing closer to Israel and that it, too, may cut off the sole source of oxygen remaining for Hamas from the Arab world and anywhere else.

The message to Saudi Arabia was meant to express to Salman Hamas' dissatisfaction over the kingdom is tightening its relations with Israel (and with Egypt) even though the siege on the Gaza Strip continues. Hamas wants to connect the tightening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the lifting of the siege on Gaza, or at least to achieve some significant relief. Hamas leaders hope that the Saudis, the leaders of the Sunni world, will feel discomfort at the warming of relations with Israel while 1.8 million Palestinians who live in Gaza suffer from Israel's treatment. The message of rebuke in fact urges the Saudi king to show pan-Arab Sunni responsibility, to use the new ties with Israel and to work to remove the siege. Thus, Hamas took a calculated risk.

"Anyone who has eyes and ears knows they have no choice," the Palestinian source told Al-Monitor. Hamas will see the results of this calculated risk next month when the time comes for Saudi Arabia's expected monthly transfer of funds to Gaza.

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Found in: saudi arabia foreign policy, qatari foreign policy, khaled meshaal, hamas funding, hamas-fatah relations, gaza, egypt-israel relations

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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