(July 25, 2014 / JNS)
The oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar’s influence has been widely felt during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. While traditionally closely aligned with Iran, Hamas has pivoted to Sunni powers like Qatar and Turkey in recent years for economic and political support. Keen to expand its regional and international influence, Qatar’s ties to the Palestinian terrorist group have drawn increasing criticism from Israel, the United States, and even fellow Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who accuse Qatar of undermining regional stability by supporting Hamas.
“Qatar is a very strange place. They rely on the U.S. for protection and invest heavily in the U.S.,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), noting that the U.S. has its largest Mideast airbase—Al-Udeid Air Base—in Qatar.
“[But] at the same time, just miles away from [the airbase], you can find the head of Hamas (Khaled Mashal), and there was even a Taliban embassy there for a while too. All of these things make for a foreign-policy anomaly,” Schanzer told JNS.org.
With the war raging in Gaza, Israeli leaders have begun to single out Qatar for its support of Hamas. During a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on July 23, now-former Israeli President Shimon Peres slammed Qatar for becoming “the world’s largest funder of terror.”
“Qatar does not have the right to send money for rockets and tunnels which are fired at innocent civilians. Their funding of terror the must stop. If they want to build then they should, but they must not be allowed to destroy,” Peres said.
Qatar reportedly pledged more than $400 million to Hamas in October 2012 during a visit to Gaza by Qatar’s ruling emir at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Qatar has also given refuge to Hamas chief Mashaal, who fled to Qatar’s capital of Doha after Hamas’s offices in Damascus were shut down in 2012 as a result of the terror group’s criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s conduct in the Syrian civil war.
More recently, the U.S. blocked the transfer of Qatari funds that were slated to pay the salaries of civil servants hired by Hamas in Gaza, the Times of Israel reported.
According to a diplomatic source in Qatar, the Gulf state in June attempted to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to an Arab bank for the salaries of 44,000 Hamas civil servants who were rendered jobless due to the recent Palestinian unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.
The attempted transfer of funds by Qatar to pay Hamas employees highlighted the dire economic situation Hamas has found itself in over the last year due to Egypt destroying Hamas’s smuggling tunnels, which the terror group relied on for tax revenue.
Egypt’s crackdown on Hamas has been part of a larger effort by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to target the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent organization.
But El-Sisi is not alone in his contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia also declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization this March. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors to Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt also recently sentenced three journalists from the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera satellite news network to seven to 10 years in prison for “spreading false news and conspiring” with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Qatar’s vocal foreign policy developed with Al Jazeera. Qatar had a point of view and, after 1995 and the launch of Al Jazeera, began increasingly and gradually to express it,” Joseph LeBaron, the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar from 2008-2011, told JNS.org.
LeBaron explained that Qatar, like most Arab countries, does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.
“In terms of Hamas, Qatar’s policy of dialogue can lead to direct support, whether political and diplomatic, economic, or humanitarian,” he said. “But Qatar’s policy also is not to support terror groups. Qatar would not support Hamas if it believed Hamas was a terror group.”
Nevertheless, Qatar’s unyielding support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas has created a deep rift in the Arab world.
Egypt, which has traditionally played a role as a mediator for the Israelis and Palestinians, accused Qatar and Turkey of undermining its efforts to broker a cease-fire to the current conflict in Gaza.
In a statement on July 17, shortly after Egypt’s initial cease-fire proposal was rejected by Hamas, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said that Palestinian blood was on Hamas’s hands.
“Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian initiative, at least 40 Palestinian souls would have been saved,” said Shukri, the Egyptian state-run news outlet MENA reported.
The Arab power struggle has continued, with Qatar reportedly offering its own cease-fire plan that excluded Egypt from the negotiating process, before the Israeli ground operation began on July 17.
Yet regional divisions appeared to thaw a bit on July 22, when Qatari Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to discuss cease-fire efforts.
“There are strained relations, obviously, but so far that tension has been restricted largely to the diplomatic sphere. Because it has, I am optimistic that the Arab states will gradually find a way to accommodate one another’s differing foreign policy approaches toward regional issues,” former U.S. ambassador LeBaron told JNS.org.
FDD’s Schanzer blamed the growing Arab rift, which is largely between U.S. allies in the Middle East, on the lack of strong U.S. leadership in the region.
“The White House right now is doing its best to extricate itself from the Middle East,” he said.
“We are setting a low bar for our allies; we are not demanding a certain level of responsibility [such as demanding that countries not support terrorist groups like Hamas]. The fact that we allow this is troubling,” added Schanzer.
Some U.S. legislators, however, have sought to pressure Qatar over its Hamas ties.
Last year, two-dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, spearheaded by Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and John Barrow (D-GA), sent a letter to Qatari Ambassador to the U.S. Mohamed Bin Abdulla Al-Rumaihi, urging the country to end its support of Hamas.
“As Israel works to achieve a cease-fire and sustainable quiet, it doesn’t help that others in the region, such as Qatar and Iran, are undermining the peace process by helping Hamas fire thousands of rockets at innocent civilians,” Barrow told JNS.org.
LeBaron said he believes the U.S. will continue to engage with Qatar.
“The United States and Qatar have long recognized that they will not always agree, far from it, but since 2010 this realization has not led either side to isolate the other. I expect this policy of engagement to continue,” he said.
Nevertheless, as Qatar seeks to expand its role as not only a major regional player, but also as an international one, the country’s fundamental values will continue to be scrutinized. In particular, Qatar’s designation as the host of the 2022 World Cup has drawn significant backlash.
“[The Qataris] are supporting a very violent non-state actor (Hamas),” Schanzer said. “A lot of people ignore Qatar’s ideological leanings. But at the end of the day, even though they are nominally allied with the United States, they are Islamist at their core.”