by Giorgio Cafiero
In early July, Mohammed Dahlan and a Hamas delegation led by Yahya Sinwar held an important meeting in Cairo. While in the Egyptian capital, Fatah’s former security chief in Gaza, who has been living in exile in Abu Dhabi since 2011 following his fallout with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Sinwar, who spent 22 years behind bars in Israel, established the Palestinian Joint Liability Committee. Financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this committee will compensate each Palestinian family that lost members during the Palestinian civil war of 2006-2007 with $50,000. According to Samir al-Masharawi, one of Dahlan’s allies, the UAE will provide the committee with a monthly $15 million “in support of relief, humanitarian, and development projects” in the coastal enclave to “alleviate [the Gazans’] suffering.”
For years Dahlan has held significant influence in the Emirates, serving as Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s security adviser. Abu Dhabi has also supported him regionally. Dahlan’s backing from the UAE has had a lot to do with his staunchly anti-Islamist politics, which date back to the early 1980s when he studied at the Islamic University of Gaza and continued throughout the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s when he ordered the arrest of hundreds of Hamas members.
Below the surface, the UAE’s interest in Gaza fits into a larger geopolitical picture: Abu Dhabi is now challenging the regional influence that Qatar expanded via Islamist groups such as Hamas. Both Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, which have battled for influence from Libya and Yemen to Tunisia and Egypt, see Gaza as another battleground in their proxy competition. By promoting Dahlan’s return to Palestinian politics, Abu Dhabi and other “quartet” capitals (Cairo, Riyadh, and Manama) seek to eject Doha from Gaza. Inevitably, Hamas will face new dilemmas created by the ongoing Qatar crisis with the involved parties seeking to reshape the Palestinian group’s alliances throughout the Middle East.
Indeed, over the past ten years Qatar has established itself as a key state sponsor of Hamas. In the aftermath of the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed blockades on Gaza, the wealthy Arabian emirate financed a host of projects in the besieged Palestinian territory. In October 2012, Emir’s Tamim’s father and predecessor visited Gaza as the first head of state to do so since Hamas consolidated its control of the coastal territory five years earlier, pledging $400 million and driving through Gaza City where Palestinians waved the Qatari flag to show their appreciation for the emirate’s monarch. In January, amid the protests in Gaza over the lack of electricity, Qatar along with Turkey agreed to provide the enclave’s power plant with three months of fuel supplies. The Qataris were also behind Hamad residential city’s construction, in addition to other residential projects and various humanitarian campaigns in Gaza.
Hamas’ leadership has no intentions of ending its relationship with Qatar. Officials in Doha have also stated that the Qatar crisis will not result in the emirate abandoning its support for Gaza. That said, the Palestinian group also accepts that it must work with Arab states, chiefly Egypt, that are blockading Qatar. For Gazans, opening the Rafah border crossing and finding longer-term solutions to electricity crises require working with more Arab governments than just Qatar’s. Despite a history of tension between Hamas and Egypt dating back to Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, the former recognizes the need to improve relations with Cairo. Simultaneously, the Egyptian leadership realizes that Islamic State franchises in the Sinai threaten both Hamas and Egypt, which has led to Cairo and the Palestinian group exploring a more cooperative relationship to counter such extremist threats.
In June, at the behest of Dahlan from his home in Abu Dhabi, Egypt decided to deliver one million liters of fuel to Gaza after officials in Tel Aviv fulfilled a Palestinian Authority request to reduce Gaza’s supply of electricity by almost half. This fuel reached Gaza shortly after Ramadan ended, sparing the besieged strip of what the United Nations warned was about to be a “total collapse.”
The developments that have unfolded in the GCC since June 5 have complicated Hamas’ regional dilemmas. The group is interested in maintaining good relations with Qatar while strengthening relations with the quartet members and not taking sides in the 14-week-old Gulf crisis. Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad put it: “Hamas does not accept that someone asks it to reject Qatari aid and does not allow anyone to interfere in its policies. The movement is keen on keeping good relations with Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, without being part of the regional axes or the Arab differences.”
Although Dahlan and Sinwar’s meeting in Cairo over the summer did not address the Hamas-Qatar relationship, odds are good that the flow of Emirati money into Gaza will come with political price tags, including the severance of the Palestinian group’s relationship with Doha. Indeed, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, in their efforts to rehabilitate Dahlan in Gaza’s political life after he spent the past seven years in the Emirates, are making a bold move. For Abbas, who sees Dahlan as a dangerous rival, and for Hamas, whose members were victims of alleged torture carried out by Dahlan’s loyalists in 2007, the former security chief of Fatah makes a return to Gaza with no shortage of baggage. In the words of the prominent Palestinian-American journalist Ramzy Baroud, “there can be no moral justification to swap the rights, hopes, and aspirations of the Palestinian people with the arrogant ambitions of a self-obsessive warlord…”
Nonetheless, Dahlan is making his return to Palestinian politics with money and, given the harsh daily conditions that Gazans face, some Palestinians, including Hamas leaders, have understandably applauded his efforts to “restore hope for Gaza’s heroic people” by working to reconcile a history of hatred between the Abu Dhabi-based Palestinian strongman and Hamas. Ultimately, it remains to be seen how Dahlan will fit into Hamas’ plans, announced on September 18, to hold general elections and begin reconciliation talks with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
Unquestionably, Hamas’ future is highly uncertain. Designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, Hamas could gain greater legitimacy internationally if it shares power with Abbas and/or Dahlan, whom American neoconservative elites in addition to the Emirati and Egyptian leaders have long hailed. Indeed, one of the 13 demands for Doha, issued by the quartet early on in the Qatar crisis, was the severance of ties between the blockaded Gulf state and Hamas, which sent Sinwar to Cairo and whose representatives have made recent trips to Saudi Arabia since Riyadh began luring the group away from Iran’s orbit in 2015. Thus, the Qatar crisis itself is driven more by the competition for influence among different Sunni Arab states in the Middle East’s volatile and fluid geopolitical order than by legitimate concerns about Doha’s support for non-state actors that the quartet sees as terrorist organizations.
For Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants, of whom over 800,000 are below the age of 14 and tens of thousands are homeless, the best-case scenario would involve the UAE stepping up financial support for Palestinians in Gaza without Hamas having to stop accepting Qatari support for residential projects and humanitarian efforts in the enclave. However, the situation in Gaza is dire, and regional geopolitics are putting pressure on Hamas. If the Gazans’ only hopes for securing a lifeline from Egypt and Emirati financial aid depend on Hamas severing ties with Doha, Gaza will remain a bone of contention for as long as the diplomatic row between the quartet and Qatar continues.
Photo: Mohammed Dahlan