Friday, 26 October 2012

Thank You, Qatar!

Palestinians hold the Qatari flag near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt prior to the arrival of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to the Gaza Strip on 23 October 2012. (Photo: Said Khatib)
Published Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Gaza Strip, besieged for five years, seems to have entered a new era since yesterday’s visit from the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. It is the first time Gaza has received a visit from a high-ranking Arab official since Hamas’ takeover in 2007. The visit reflected the profound transformations in the Middle East after the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt.

The emir visited Gaza to participate in the inauguration of several projects funded by Qatar, including the reconstruction of the main highways, a hospital specializing in artificial limbs, hundreds of residential units, as well as agricultural projects. The announcement of this funding followed the Qatari donation of 30 million liters of fuel to Gaza’s power plant.
Although there are organizations operating in Gaza supporting several humanitarian projects, such as the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the new Qatari project and the royal visit still seems quite different.

Taking into account Qatar’s welcoming of Hamas officials after their departure from Syria, as well as its distinctive relations with the Muslim Brotherhood’s chapters across the region, the Qatari project seems to be as much a political as a humanitarian gesture. In other words, the emir’s visit can be seen as political recognition of the situation in Gaza, which resulted from the conflict over the legitimacy between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

PA President Mahmoud Abbas received a call in which Emir Hamad notified him of his plan to visit Gaza. Sources said that the emir tried to convince Abbas to accompany him on his visit, but he refused. Abbas, according to the Palestinian news agency, welcomed the Qatari efforts to reconstruct the Gaza Strip. In actuality, the PA has long opposed any plans for reconstructing Gaza after the Israeli war in 2008-2009, unless those plans were under its auspices. Obviously, the Qatari attempts in this context might present a penetration through the barriers imposed by the PA on the process of reconstruction.

Historically, Palestinian political movements have had long-term relations with the Gulf countries. The first Fatah cells spread across Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Later, Gulfi financial support played a pivotal role in establishing the inflated bureaucratic edifice of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and funded a wide spectrum of salaries, incentives, and grants.

Some argued that Gulf money to the PLO aimed at blunting its radical positions and taming it in political terms in order to make it a subordinate body compatible with the more moderate political positions of Gulf countries. The position adopted by the PLO during the Gulf crisis in 1990, when it declared its sympathy with Iraq, was enough for the Gulf countries to cut off the subsidies. The PLO’s financial crisis resulting from that decision might have been one of the stimuli behind its initiative to take a seat in the peace process with Israel in the early 1990s.

Today, as Hamas has become part of a growing political power in the region called the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems fair to assume that Gulf money is back to its old game. The experience after the “Arab Spring” revolutions has shown that Qatar’s solid connections with Islamists across the region bolster its image as a moderate party who, in gaining power, wouldn’t adopt radical positions against Israel or the US. Qatar’s attempts in this regard seek to contain the region’s political and social shifts by merely renewing the same authoritarian regimes with new faces. Qatar’s initiative in Gaza should be understood in this context.

However, in terms of the political economy, the reconstruction of Gaza may have consequences. As seen with Lebanon’s Taif agreement, political compromise is the path to preventing conflict that could arise during post-war reconstruction. A similar scenario could arise in Gaza.

Let’s remember that Gaza is still an occupied territory and Hamas continues to define itself as a resistance movement. However, Hamas also bears the burden of being the authority in Gaza in a way that has obviously affected its ability to resist in recent years. Practically, Hamas’ heavy engagement in the “Authority Project,” which could have a new dimension now with the process of reconstruction, may result in strengthening the conflict between the political priorities and the reconstruction necessities. The quest for economic prosperity predominantly entails compromising in politics. While Hamas in Gaza is today raising the banner “Thank You, Qatar,” it should ask itself about the political consequences tomorrow.

Rami Khrais is a graduate in Economics and commentator on Middle Eastern politics. You can find him on Twitter @RamiNKhrais.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
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