Qatar’s landmark visit to Gaza: ‘A victory for Hamas’
The arrival of Qatar’s Emir in Gaza was billed as an “historic” visit that broke the isolation of the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas. It also provoked Israel and Western backed mainstream Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
The visit is the first by a head of state to Gaza since the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the tiny enclave in 2007.
During that time the strip on the Mediterranean coast has been partially under political and economic blockade by Israel and Egypt in an attempt to control the import of arms to Hamas.
Then the Emir of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifah Al-Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza at the head of a large delegation crossed the Egyptian-Rafah border into the strip in a landmark visit that marked the breaking of the siege, in coordination with the new Islamist regime of Mohammed Morsi in Cairo.
That reflects Egypt’s new regional role as Mubarak’s regime would have unlikely to allow such a passage.
“Today we declare victory over the blockade through this historic visit,” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said jubilantly in a speech at the site of a new town to be built with the oil rich gulf state’s money. “Your visit today officially announces the breaking of the economic blockade and the political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice.”
Qatar called the visit a humanitarian gesture and its Emir has donated 400 million dollars to help rebuild the impoverished Gaza Strip. It is home to nearly 1.7 million people and was badly damaged during a 22 day huge Israeli operation in December 2008 and January 2009.
The Emir received a hero’s red-carpet welcome; a Hamas honour guard greeted him, Qatari and Hamas flags decorated the routes to the city along with banners thanking the gulf state for its support.
Emir Hamad Bin Khalifah Al-Thani called for unity but the visit poses risks
While cheering Palestinians lined the main roads to Gaza city to greet the Emir, in the West Bank the mood was different. Palestinian officials made clear their discontent with how the visit was handled and the Emir’s visit to the Hamas run strip was seen by many Palestinians as a victory for the Islamic movement and a blow for the Palestinian Authority which may deepen the divisions between Palestinians.
Yasser Abd Rabbo, an advisor to Hamas rival and Western backed President Mahmoud Abbas, told euronews the visit did not serve the central Palestinian cause. “The Qatari behaviour is contradictory to the position of most of the Arab and western countries. It is not an issue of reconstructing the strip because it could have happened in a different way through the legitimate authority. But the Emir clearly wanted to give a political message, encouraging the Hamas government in Gaza to go forward with its plans to have a separate entity.”
Israel also criticised the Qatar leader’s visit. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor described the visit as “astounding”. “By hugging Hamas publicly, the Emir of Qatar has thrown peace under the bus,” he said.
Israel’s US allies expressed their concerns too. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US hoped “the opportunity was taken to make clear the importance of Palestinians and Israelis talking to each other. And we’ve been very clear about our concerns about Hamas”.
Hamas is ostracised by the west as a terrorist group. Its hardliners refuse to recognise Israel’s right to exist and reject a peace treaty with the Jewish state. It has also poured scorn on Abbas for his efforts to negotiate a Palestinian state. And the two largest Palestinian movements have so far failed to form a national unity government, despite the Qatari attempts which brought Abbas and Hamas’ supreme leader in exile Khaled Meshaal to Doha last year to sign a deal which is yet to be implemented.
The so far unsucessful reconciliation efforts prompted the Qatari leader during his visit to call for warring Palestinian factions to unite “Why are you staying divided?” he asked an audience at Gaza’s Islamic University. “There are no peace negotiations, and there is no clear strategy of resistance and liberation. Why shouldn’t brothers sit together and reconcile?”
Qatar has long sought a role in Palestinian politics and now has ambitions to leverage its oil wealth to gain influence in the region. It has been in the forefront in arming and funding rebels in Libya and many believe it is playing a similar role in Syria.
“Qatar has great ambitions to be a regional power and be present in many countries like Libya and Syria, the visit to Gaza indicates Qatar’s good relations with Islamic parties and new patterns of regional relationships influenced by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi rule in Egypt,” Paul Salem, the
director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told euronews.
The Arab Spring has pushed Islamist movements to the forefront throughout the Middle East . The Emir’s visit to Gaza highlighted the changes in the region. Many see it as an attempt to bring Hamas into the peace camp and move it away from Iran and Syria after its falling out with Shi-ite Iran over the conflict in Syria.
“The visit aims to encourage Hamas more away from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah towards the main Arab Sunni countries and to take a more moderate and pragmatic position.” explained Paul Salem. “The Qataris feel they are much closer to Islamic groups, they are Islamic themselves. They would naturally support Islamist groups like Hamas. And they feel now that the Islamist groups are strongest. They would not support radicalisation, but those who are working to build a modern society and a successful economy,“ added Salem.
Maha Barada. Middle East correspondent.