An Unlikely Partnership: Israel and Qatar in Gaza

The 2014 Israel-Gaza war decimated the Gaza strip, with around 18,000 homes destroyed or damaged in the densely populated territory by weeks of Israeli airstrikes and shelling. After the ceasefire in late August, Qatar has surged ahead as the leading player in the reconstruction process of the war-torn strip and interestingly, has partnered with Israel.

Despite the hardline parties involved in Israel’s new coalition government, there have been important signs that the Israeli government is looking towards peace with the troublesome coastal strip on its southern frontier. Israel and Hamas have had indirect contact for the last several weeks over a possible five-year truce. These secret talks have taken place with high-ranking representatives of Hamas, such as Mousa Abu Marzouk, the Deputy Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau. There is much to argue over if a peace between Israel and Hamas were to materialize, such as the highly contentious issue of creating a detached floating Gaza sea port, however, an agreement between both parties is entirely possible. The secret talks involving Mousa Abu Marzouk have taken place in Doha and the proposal has been backed by the Qatari and Turkish governments, with the proposal itself based on an outline formulated by UN special envoy to the Middle East, Nikolay Mladenov.

These fresh, albeit indirect, talks have also been accompanied by a marked easing of Egypt’s hostility toward Hamas. Egypt’s military has temporarily opened its border crossing with Gaza at Rafah in recent weeks, which allowed thousands to leave Gaza for the first time in months and a stable flow of badly-needed cement to enter the territory. With the relative thaw in Qatar’s relations with President Sisi’s government, facilitated by Saudi Arabia, it has been claimed that Qatar has reached an agreement for these construction materials to enter Gaza. It is more likely however that this was facilitated by Mohammed Dahlan, a key Palestinian figure linked to the friendly relations between Egypt and the UAE, according to sources on the ground.

Ever since hostilities ceased between Gaza and Israel, Qatar has been eager to get involved in reconstruction efforts. Of the $5.4 billion that was pledged for Gaza reconstruction in a global conference in October 2014, Qatar alone pledged $1 billion. By comparison, the EU pledged $568 million and the US $212 million. Most of the money that was pledged has not materialized at all almost one year on (only five percent materialized as of February 2015), which indicates a general unwillingness among global donors to rebuild the crumbling strip. However, Qatar is an important exception, as it has been active in overseeing the construction of key infrastructure and homes in Gaza, working not only with Hamas, but also with Israel to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction.

Mohammad al-Emadi, the head of the Qatari Committee to Rebuild Gaza and Qatari ambassador to the coastal territory, has recently been shuttling between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects (streets, schools, housing units and hospitals) in Gaza. Al-Emadi recently met with the Israeli brigadier general in charge of letting goods and people through Israel’s Erez crossing regarding Qatar’s ongoing projects in Gaza. Indeed, in a sign of Israeli cooperation, al-Emadi last month crossed into Gaza from Israel through the Erez crossing after Egypt refused to allow the Qatari delegation through its Rafah crossing. Although relations between Qatar and Egypt have improved lately, it is still a tense relationship, which is most likely the reason why Qatar has opted to partner with Israel and resort to its assistance. According to the Israeli group Gisha, of the 5 million tons of construction materials required to rebuild Gaza, Israeli officials have so far permitted 1.3 million tons to enter Gaza since September 2014. The vast majority of these construction materials were used for the Qatari-funded development projects.

Qatar’s reasoning to get so eagerly involved in Gaza’s reconstruction is relatively straightforward. Qatar has historically had an interest in the Palestinian issue as it is a way for the tiny gas-rich emirate to punch above its weight in regional affairs and gain favourable coverage. More importantly, due to the Palestinian Authority’s reluctance to help reconstruct Gaza, Qatar sees an opportunity to fill in this void and consolidate Gaza’s political separation from the West Bank in order to secure its ambition to become an influential actor in the face of an alliance consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moreover, if Qatar can fulfil Gaza’s needs for electricity and construction materials, it can fully assume the role of mediator between Gaza and Israel, thus superseding the long-standing roles of the PA and Egypt in this role.

On the other hand, Israel’s reasoning to get involved with Qatar is more complex, though it is apparent that it has much to gain from cooperating with it. Although Israel has attempted to isolate Hamas and for a long time publicly accused Qatar of financing Hamas, Israel is currently helping Qatar to partner with Hamas in order to rebuild the strip. This new policy U-turn is explained by Yossi Kuperwasser, the former head of research for Israel’s military intelligence, who said that “better conditions in Gaza would lessen the incentive of Hamas and the population to go again to a war.” There are also wider geopolitical reasons as well for Israel’s sudden cooperation with Qatar. Israel’s new deputy minister for regional cooperation, Ayub Carra, claimed that Qatar shares Israel’s concerns about Iran. In the face of the P5+1 striking a nuclear deal with Iran, Israel has attempted to improve relations with the Sunni Gulf monarchies due to the threat Israel faces from Iran and its militant proxies. This can also explain why Israel is allowing Qatar to remain as the main backer of Hamas. If Qatari support to Hamas was decreased substantially, it would allow for Iran to opportunistically increase its funding for the group and make Hamas more reliant on Iran, a worse case scenario for Israel.

In this context of greater foreign competition in Gaza, Fatah is increasingly getting left behind on affairs regarding the territory. With the rise of Mohammed Dahlan and his facilitation of good ties between the Egyptian government and Hamas coupled with Qatar’s efforts to procure cordial ties between Israel and Hamas, the PA is getting increasingly irrelevant in the enclave. Mahmoud Abbas has been angered by Qatar’s support for Hamas as its funding allows Hamas to stay in power in Gaza and prevent Fatah from taking control of the territory. Al-Emadi’s recent accusation that Egypt and the PA misused more than $100 million of the amount Qatar donated to help electricity needs in Gaza whilst at the same time applauding Israel’s genuine efforts in the reconstruction process have reportedly enraged Abbas.

Although Qatar’s rulers have made ample adjustments to their foreign policy to make it less adventurous and more in line with the policy of its GCC neighbours, the country is still acting independently in Gaza. This is not necessarily a bad thing, reconstruction has been far too slow since the Gaza war. Fresh infrastructure projects by Qatar, regardless of the political reasoning behind it, and its facilitation of indirect Hamas-Israel talks will go a long way in preventing another devastating war in Gaza.

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