Hamas has been deeply shocked by a Saudi court’s decision to send dozens of its activists to prison. They were arrested more than two years ago on suspicion of money laundering and smuggling funds to the terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip, aided by money-exchange companies in Turkey.
On Aug. 8, the Saudi court published the sentences of 69 Hamas operatives living in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They were sentenced to periods of imprisonment ranging from six months to 22 years; five were found innocent and released. Senior Hamas figure Mohammed al-Khoudary, 81, the head of Hamas’s Saudi branch, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In an official statement, Hamas condemned the sentences.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader abroad, has made efforts in recent months to approach Saudi Arabia and expressed hope that the Saudi authorities would grant amnesty to his men. Senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Zahar said that the sentences were “a Saudi response to the Zionist requests and that it was a political decision, not a legal one.” He added that Hamas was not closing the door to Saudi Arabia and was willing to restore relations.
Saudi Arabia defines Hamas, along with the wider Muslim Brotherhood, as a terrorist movement.
Success for Israel and the United States
It is said that the Trump administration and Israel were behind the Saudi activity against Hamas, and that their efforts succeeded in bringing about a complete disconnect between the two. Hamas points to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as having adopted American-Israeli policy against the movement.
On Sept. 12, 2019, senior Hamas figure Marwan Abu Ras told the Al-Khaleej Online website that Saudi Arabia was drawing closer to Israel and was opening the gates of normalization with it by arresting senior Hamas figures in the kingdom.
The arrest and conviction of Hamas operatives mark the end of the “Golden Age” in relations between the Saudi royal household and the Hamas leadership.
The Saudi-Hamas rift
Hamas’s office in Saudi Arabia was opened in 1988 during the rule of King Fahd bin Abdulaziz. Al-Khoudary was appointed as the movement’s official representative.
In 1998, King Fahd hosted the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and permitted him to collect donations in the kingdom for the Gaza Strip. “You are in our hearts and we stand with you until the liberation of Jerusalem,” King Fahd was quoted as saying at the reception for Yassin.
The first rift in Saudi relations with Hamas came in 2007 after the terrorist group forcibly took over the Gaza Strip and expelled the Palestinian Authority. Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas met several months later in Mecca and signed a reconciliation agreement near the Kaaba shrine. According to the Saudis, Hamas violated the agreement.
Since then, relations have continued to deteriorate. In 2015, Saudi security officials arrested Maher Salah, a former Hamas leader abroad, and accused him of money laundering. He spent a year in a Saudi prison and was deported to Turkey.
In October 2016, the Saudi security forces detained senior Hamas figure Nizar Awadallah.
After President Trump declared Hamas a terrorist organization and following the inauguration of bin Salman as crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s rough handling of the Hamas movement accelerated. In 2017, the Saudis adopted Trump’s position, and in February 2018 the Saudi foreign minister declared Hamas a terrorist organization.
The wave of arrests of Hamas operatives that began in April 2019 represented a significant change in the Saudi royal household’s attitude towards the Hamas movement.
Hamas sources accuse the United States and Israel of putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to detain Hamas operatives in the kingdom and to paralyze the movement’s fundraising activities. They blame the Saudi royal household for sticking a knife in Hamas’s back because of the closeness between the crown prince and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law. The crown prince, Hamas claims, desired to get closer to Israel.
Hamas kept the detention of some 60 of its operatives in Saudi Arabia very quiet for five months. The news was initially reported in the Qatari press, but Hamas refused to provide confirmation and tried via behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts through several Gulf states to secure the release of the detainees.
After Hamas concluded that this approach would not bear fruit, it issued an official announcement on Sept. 9, 2019, demanding the release of al-Khoudary, who was detained along with his son Hani.
According to Hamas sources, the movement was also assisted by former Palestinian official Muhammad Dahlan, who has a senior status among the Gulf States.
Hamas sources reported that the arrests of its operatives in the Saudi kingdom not only followed American-Israeli pressure but was also based on intelligence provided by Israel to Saudi intelligence. Israel and the United States sought to dry up Hamas’s sources of funding in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s complete disregard for Hamas’s requests to release its operatives testifies to its cooperation with the United States and Israel on the issue of fighting terrorism. Saudi Arabia needs the help of both countries to protect itself from the dangers of Iran and does not want to assist Hamas, an ally of Tehran.
On Sept. 10, 2019, the United States took a further step and imposed sanctions on senior Hamas figures and institutions abroad that dealt with money transfers to the organization in the Gaza Strip, including Marwan Mahdi Salah al-Rawi, owner of Redin Exchange in Turkey, his deputy Ismael Tash, and his Istanbul import/export company, SMART.
An effort to obtain clemency
Hamas is now trying to get the rest of the Arab and Islamic world to pressure the Saudi royal court to grant clemency to its imprisoned operatives.
The mission was assigned to Hamas leader Mashal, who has good relations with the Gulf States and is not considered close to Iran.
The first move will be an effort by Hamas to release al-Khoudary, who, Hamas officials claim, has cancer.
Khoudary also has Kuwaiti citizenship and worked as the chief executive of Kuwait’s military hospital. He held the rank of colonel in the Kuwaiti army.
Hamas sources claim that al-Khoudary collected donations for the Hamas movement in Saudi Arabia with the knowledge of the Saudi authorities and did not act against the Saudi royal house.
They claimed al-Khoudary’s arrest was intended to improve the image of the Saudi crown prince, who the Biden administration blamed for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and to portray him as being tough on terrorism.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.