Senseless in Gaza
Three weeks ago I pleaded with U.S. and friendly policy makers to seriously consider bringing Hamas to the negotiating table after that organization revised its charter, severed its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, authorized PNA President Mahmoud Abbas to conduct negotiations with Israel, and installed new leadership. I further noted that “designating Hamas as a terrorist organization has proven to be an impediment to achieving positive changes in the Israel-Palestine conflict…It is about time that the U.S. takes a second look at a failed policy regarding HAMAS, if not the total policy on terrorism.”
Now, in the wake of the diplomatic split between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, my advice seems to be no less valid but more unlikely to be heeded. The U.S. Congress reacted by introducing a bill that dismisses the new changes, and imposes further sanctions on Hamas and anyone who supports it. Saudi Arabia and its allies (the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) seem to make Hamas a pivotal issue in their attempt, not to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, but to force Qatar to abdicate key components of its foreign policy. The Saudi alliance wants Qatar to stop support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas because they are “terrorist” organizations.
Traditionally Saudi-Hamas relations have been generally friendly, although tense on occasion as when Saudi efforts to end the Hamas-Fatah spat failed. Saudi Arabia had never called Hamas a terrorist organization in the previous thirty years of its existence, nor could point to a single act of terrorism attempted by Hamas on Saudi territory. Egypt called Hamas a terrorist organization in 2015, after decades of calling it a resistance organization. The year is important since by then Egypt had come under military control after overthrowing an elected government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood. General Sisi’s designation of Hamas as terrorist was rescinded by an Egyptian court of appeals. So, clearly both Saudi Arabia and Egypt were targeting the Muslim Brotherhood first; Hamas was a secondary target.
Qatar has always insisted that its aid was given to Gaza, not to Hamas. Qatar has been the leading donor in attempting to rebuild the Strip after Israel’s devastating attacks. “Why are they mucking in Gaza?” asked a prominent U.S. journal, as if help in reconstruction needs further explanation. That journal answered that Qatar was working to keep Hamas from going into the pro-Iran camp. One would think that the Saudi Alliance would approve. By boycotting Qatar and demonizing Hamas, it seems that Hamas now has no choice but to get closer to Iran; Hamas’ political leadership has already scheduled a visit to Tehran. If their goal, as stated by Prime Minister Netanyahu, is to “isolate Hamas” then Hamas is logically justified in seeking new friends or allies.
Logic would suggest that the Saudi Alliance would offer to co-opt not isolate Hamas and to supplant Qatar as the major donor in exchange for political concessions on the part of Hamas. Egypt has taken the first practical steps to put its stamp on the crisis. Egyptian security officials arranged for the new leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahia Sinnar, and his military chief to meet in Cairo with Mahmud Dahlan, who was previously dismissed as head of security forces for President Abbas, and who has lived in the UAE since 2011.
Dahlan and Sinnar had been elementary school friends but travelled down separate political paths: Sinnar followed the Muslim Brotherhood while Dahlan opted for Fatah. Dahlan later incurred the wrath of both Fatah and Hamas, forcing him to take refuge in the UAE. In 2008, he was suspected of conspiring with foreign powers (possibly U.S.) to overthrow Abbas, and to arrange an attack by mercenaries on Gaza to oust Hamas. Now Egypt’s Sisi, who considers Dahlan a personal friend, was offering him as a partner for Hamas in governing Gaza. Dahlan is promoted for his ability to obtain potential financial aid from Gulf States.
What Egypt expects from a Dahlan/Hamas governed Gaza is security of its border with Gaza, and Gazan assistance against rebellious forces in the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas could possibly benefit if it were able to develop better relations with Egypt, at least as far as opening of border crossing points and future trade.
Other members of the Saudi Alliance do not seem to give Gaza a lot of attention, concentrating as they are on demonizing Qatar. Of greater importance to them is the future of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the struggle against the Brotherhood may be lengthy, and triumph over the Brotherhood may not be easy; action against a much weaker target, Hamas, may be the default position.
Meantime, President Abbas is threatening to declare Gaza a rebellious territory, but he does not have the military resources to subjugate Gaza, nor would he have support among Palestinians anywhere to attack a Palestinian territory. President Abbas, in any event, would not be too welcoming to Dahlan as the new Gaza leader.
Committed as Dahlan may be to his hometown in the Gaza Strip, he is an ambitious man who would ask for more than partnership with Hamas in Gaza. He is not likely to put a great effort in the Hamas arena unless the Saudi Alliance, and their friends the Israelis and the Americans, assure him that they would support him in replacing Abbas as the leader of all Palestinians. The Palestinians, under Israeli occupation or in the diaspora, may not welcome such a coup. They would suspect that a Palestine under Dahlan and his regional allies is not likely to be democratic but another territory ruled by a strong man, and still under occupation.