The Gulf Crisis and Palestine

 

Regional rivalry spurs unlikely new partnership between Qatar-backed Hamas and UAE-based Dahlan

 

 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

 

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Rivalries between Arab states have always had a big impact on Palestinian politics. An unexpected consequence of the month-old crisis between Qatar and its four Arab detractors has been to bring together two Palestinian arch-foes: the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and has long enjoyed the backing of Qatar; and the UAE-based former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan, who has long aspired to leadership of the mainstream Fateh movement which dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA).


Hamas finally acknowledged this week that its representatives had been in talks with Dahlan’s camp for some time, and had reached an apparently far-reaching deal. The disclosure was made by the deputy head of the movement’s political bureau Khalil al-Hayya at a press conference in the besieged Gaza Strip.

 

There can be no doubt that it is because of these talks that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair withdrew the ‘terrorist’ label he had previously stuck on Hamas, and the movement was excluded from the list of 59 Qatari-backed individuals and organizations designated as ‘terrorist’ by Saudi Arabia and its allies the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain.

 

Senior Palestinian sources confirm that the latest round of meetings were held in Dahlan’s Cairo residence between a Hamas delegation headed by the movement’s leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya as-Sinwar, and Dahlan’s team. Hamas political bureau Dr. Mousa 
Abu-Marzouq also took part, and Dahlan attended in person along with his chief lieutenant, former Fateh security official Samir al-Mashharawi.

Hayya made a number of important points during his lengthy media appearance:

First, he asserted that Hamas had made serious progress in recent talks with Egyptian officials – which he described as ‘among the best so far’. Egypt promised to take steps to alleviate the suffering of the blockaded Gaza Strip’s inhabitants, including opening the Rafah border crossing on a regular basis and establishing a commercial crossing-point for the passage of goods to and from the Strip.

Secondly, Hayya declared that Hamas takes a position of neutrality in the current Gulf crisis. ‘We want balanced relations with everyone because we are not part of this crisis and we have been (unfairly) implicated in it,’ he explained. What this means in practice is that Hamas is not standing in Qatar’s trench, despite Doha’s consistent and longstanding backing for the movement. Hamas has learned lessons from the Syrian crisis – in which its loyalties were initially torn between a supportive regime in Damascus and fellow Islamists in the opposition — and is determined not to repeat previous mistakes.

Third, Hayya described his movement’s relations with Iran as ‘balanced and good’, adding that ‘we seek to develop them’ and that ‘we value Iranian efforts in support of the Palestinian cause.’ This suggests that a significant rapprochement between Hamas and Tehran is imminent.

Fourth, he said Hamas was involved in discussions with all Palestinian parties and factions with the aim of forming a so-called ‘National Salvation Front’. The implication is that this body could serve as an alternative or parallel structure to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The sudden openness to Hamas shown by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia seems aimed at stripping Qatar once and for all of its ‘Palestinian card’. Hamas enjoys widespread Arab public support as the leading force in Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, and Qatar’s adversaries seem keen to signal that their actions against Doha are not due to its support for the movement. The plan is evidently working, and it has placed Hamas’ Doha-based leaders in an awkward position – specifically its former leader Khaled Mishaal, who opposed the rapprochement with Dahlan in deference to Qatar.

The ultimate upshot of all this that the UAE may end up replacing Qatar as the Gaza Strip’s chief financial and economic backer, with Dahlan acting as conduit and Egypt providing its vital consent, cooperation and facilitation. It increasingly looks like Hamas is willing to provide ample pay-back to the Egyptian side on the security front in exchange. This would include fully securing the Strip’s border with Egypt, including sealing all the existing cross-border tunnels and refraining from digging new ones, as well as handing over 17 wanted men accused of belonging to the Islamic State (IS)’s offshoot in Sinai, notably Shadi al-Mena’i whom the Egyptian authorities insist is hiding in Gaza.

This coordination between Hamas and Dahlan – who was Hamas’ nemesis in Gaza prior to its 2007 takeover of the Strip, and was formally expelled from Fateh at its congress last year – amounts to the announcement of a complete break with the PA in Ramallah and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads Fateh and the PLO. It consolidates the de facto independence of the Strip as a separate entity — or what one might call a ‘de facto emirate.’

Abbas is no great friend of Gaza, and blundered badly by taking the discriminatory step of cutting the salaries of PA employees in the Strip, further alienating its inhabitants and consolidating its separation from the West Bank. He also continues to threaten to withhold payments for fuel for the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant and encourage Israel to cut electricity supplies. I have it on good authority that Abbas even hoped to cause havoc in Gaza via a resumption of missile fire directed at Israel. The aim was to provoke Israel into launching a devastating assault on the Strip which would finish Hamas off once and for all. But, as on previous occasions, this proved to be a losing bet.

Abbas took these measures in the belief that by punishing Hamas he could cause the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants to rebel against the movement and its administration. But he was only punishing his ‘own’ hungry and besieged people, while pushing Hamas into the arms of his sworn enemy Dahlan.

 

Many Palestinians suspect Abbas actually wants the Gaza Strip to secede from the West Bank, and the Hamas-Dahlan deal helps achieve that. But that would only turn him into a 
‘one-armed’ president, unable to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people as a whole in any political contacts or peace negotiations. That would be catastrophic for the Palestinians and their cause.

Israel too would like to formalize the Gaza Strip’s separation. This would enable it to concentrate on consolidating its occupation of and settlement-building in the West Bank – with the PA’s 40,000-strong security forces playing a facilitating role as it endlessly reiterates its commitment to ‘coexistence’.

 

As for the Palestinian people, they have no say in any of these manoeuvres and little faith in any of the players. The majority – and most especially in the Gaza Strip – are at present preoccupied with survival and meeting their basic living needs. This does not mean that economic, political and physical strangulation has quashed their will to resist occupation. Only that when resistance is revived, as it inevitably will be before long, it will take on new forms and be under new leadership, regardless whether it emerges from Fateh, Hamas or elsewhere.

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