A few minutes after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, announced on June 5 that they would cut diplomatic relations with Qatar on the pretext of supporting terrorism, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip questioned how the strain would impact the electricity crisis in the besieged coastal enclave. At the same time, analysts in Gaza began making calculations on what Hamas’ next move will be, with the coming loss of a prized benefactor.
Qatar is a major financial backer of humanitarian projects in Gaza and by extension a stabilizer to Hamas. The Gulf country promised more than $30 million in reconstruction projects after the 2014 war including the rehabilitation and development of Salah al-Din Street—Gaza’s only highway—and established several schools, hospitals and an entire residential city in Khan Yunis that cost $160 million. Moreover, Qatar has paid the salaries of 40,000 Hamas employees in 2016, a bill that totaled $20 million and required careful coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The role Qatar had played in the region was one of deliberate calculations to maintain a balance of power. Qatar is a small country flanked by Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the east, across the Persian Gulf. Doha has sought a fragile relationship with the two powerful countries yielding competing influence across the Middle East. It is in this context that Qatar has built relations with Hamas and coordinated their projects with Israel—an enemy state of both the Saudi Kingdom and Iran—and a pocket of power for Qatar who positioned themselves as a gatekeeper for aid and political relations with both Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Yet amid growing humanitarian chaos as a result of the power outages in Gaza, former allies of Hamas are extending offers to rescue the Strip from its electricity crisis, albeit with terms that would require Hamas to cede authority. These offers presented themselves just as Qatar became cash-strapped by the cut off from Arab countries.
Last week Egypt gave 220,000 gallons of fuel to Gaza’s power plant, raising daily electrical supplies to eight hours, up from four the week before. But the deal came with heavy concessions to Hamas’ authority. Reportedly, Egyptian security officials extended the offer to increase electricity supply as well as give more freedom of movement to Palestinians through the Rafah border crossing, in exchange for Hamas handing over 17 men wanted by Cairo on terrorism charges, according to the London-based newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat.
The move marks the most significant change in relations between Hamas and Cairo in recent years.
A few years ago Hamas would have rebuked this kind of a deal. Relations with Egypt deteriorated after a coup d’état against former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Morsi is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas took its start as Gaza off-shoot. But with Morsi’s ouster, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing in the south, with the exception of a few days a year, flooded the tunnel network where supplies–both food and weapons–were smuggled, and cut its political backing.
Most of Hamas’ other foreign backers distanced themselves from the group at this time.
Yet even with Egypt’s fuel, Gaza needs to find a rich regional partner to rescue the strip from the electricity crisis and with Qatar becoming less of an option in the future, Iran potentially may fill the vacuum.
Iran had moved away from Hamas following the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, but the tides have turned in the last three years and Iran may be looking to extend its influence. In 2014 Hamas voted to bridge relations with Iran, and that time for that was when Saudi Arabia began distancing itself as a partner for Hamas and increasing support to the Palestinian Authority.
Many in Gaza are trying to piece together how the crisis in Qatar unfold.
Tayseer al-Jamasi, 44, a computer science teacher from Gaza City, said the Gulf boycott of Qatar over allegations of supporting terrorism could have been set in motion by President Donald Trump who described Hamas as a terror group last May.
“We have been shocked! We expected those countries to stand by the Palestinian issue and the ongoing struggle,” al-Jamasi said while preparing his evening meal to break the Ramadan fast.
Hamas was designated as a terror organization by the CIA in 1997, but Trump’s statement was seen to carry a heavier weight in Gaza.
At the time of Trump’s statement, Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum criticized Trump for labeling the group as a terror organization, stating Trump made “a distortion of our image and shows a complete bias.”
“That’s what we exactly need! After decades of waiting for a solution to the Palestinian crisis, a new U.S. president sets us back a thousand years back by saying that Gaza and Hamas are terrorists, a boutique owner in Gaza City, Duaa al-Sumairi, 37, said.
“We seem to have to wait for another thousand more to see some stability in the region and sleep without dreaming about policy,” al-Sumiri said, adding “Cairo hates us and Amman has not been interested in Gaza since it established a field hospital in 2008.”
Internally, Hamas faces a mounting economic crisis, compounded recently by the Palestinian Authority increasing the price of electricity and cutting wages. Hamas officials are aware that they need to overcome both their disputes with the Palestinian government in the West Bank and find a new foreign backer if they are to avoid a further humanitarian disaster, which is already politically destabilizing.
“Hamas has realized that a political plan is being implemented in the region and that the successive events that are raging in the Arab World/Arab relations are entrenching Hamas in the corner and forcing it to re-examine its political presence on the external level as well as its internal options,” senior Hamas official and a member of legislative council Salah al-Bardawil told Mondoweiss.
“Hamas has lost the rule of its Islamist allies, which had formed the backbone of its hopes and aspirations for the future. It also lost its main financial resources when Egypt closed the tunnels and the siege was tightened. It has also lost its Iranian ally by the beginning of the Arab Spring. Qatar is its only ally left, in light of the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation agreement,” he added referencing the detente between Ankara and Tel Aviv last year.
Thought for al-Bardawil, Gaza’s immediate problems do not originate in the Gulf.
“What hurts Hamas is that the siege imposed on Gaza has reached an unprecedented degree and has caused severe suffering in the lives of people, and has disrupted the most vital sectors, and the situation is approaching a disaster, he said.
Political scientist Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a professor at Gaza’s Al Azhar University, said Hamas was able to adapt to the changes of the region in light of the Arab revolutions in the past, but the current crisis threatens Hamas’ continuation.
“For the first time since the founding of Hamas, pliers has been clutched against Hamas’s neck, facing both an internal and an external crisis, and finds itself in the face of successive developments, without holding powerful cards that could carry them to safety,” Abu Saada told Mondoweiss.
Yet if Iran steps in, Hamas could avoid losing their grip, Abu Saada said. In that configuration, Hamas’ dependence on Iran would be absolute.
Abu Saada added if Iran and Hamas do not forge a deal and soon, Hamas would be pressured to return the keys to Gaza to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and Hamas’s alliance with Tehran in 2014 would totally disintegrate.
If Hamas folds to the Palestinian Authority, Abu Saada believed that it would have the potential remove the possibility of another the disastrous war with the Israeli military.
In short, Hamas is now is racing against the clock to avoid the coming storm.