The decision of five Arab nations to cut all political and economic ties with Qatar on Monday has created a crisis in the Arab world that some believe might accrue to Israel’s benefit should Qatar acquiesce to Saudi demands that it stop funding terrorist groups, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It has the potential of being a very positive development,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“We do not want to see instability in the region, but this has been long in the offing and it was perhaps spurred by the conference in Riyadh,” he said, referring to last month’s meeting President Donald Trump held with regional leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The council includes Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Kuwait and Oman. Bahrain, the Saudis, Egypt and the UAE all cut off all diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move Monday that was later joined by Yemen, the government in eastern Libya, and the Maldives.
“Countries in the region have complained about Qatar’s activities for years,” Hoenlein pointed out. “Qatar has played host to Hamas’ leadership and provided funding and resources to them and many other terrorist groups — and was often aligned with Iran.”
It is unclear if Qatar will succumb to the demands that it stop funding terrorists, but media reports said Qatar has forced several senior Hamas officials to leave the country. Among them was said to be Saleh Arouri, the leader of Hamas’ military activities in the West Bank, who reportedly flew to Malaysia.
“We don’t know who was instructed to leave and if anyone has been allowed to stay behind,” said Nimrod Novik, an Israeli fellow of the Israel Policy Forum and a former chief adviser on foreign policy to Shimon Peres. “But I would not be surprised if the pressure does not produce a more meaningful reduction in support [to terrorist groups]. But it may come back in the future when Qatar feels emboldened again.”
Israel’s former emissary to Qatar, Eli Avidar, was quoted on Monday as saying that Qatar’s support has been crucial for Hamas’ survival and its terrorist operations. In fact, he said, Hamas “would not be able to survive in the [Hamas-controlled] Gaza Strip or fund its wars with Israel without Qatari funding.”
Novik said that even if Hamas survives a Qatari withdrawal of financial support, “it will be a completely different Hamas.” He said Turkey, which has long been an ally of Hamas, would find it “very difficult” to fill the financial void should Qatar withdraw support because of its own “economic constraints and priorities.”
“And in order to provide Hamas with anything, you need the cooperation of Egypt or Israel or both and you have neither,” he said. “The likelihood of Hamas getting anything meaningful is diminished.”
Although Iran cut off its financial aid to Hamas in 2009 because of Hamas’ refusal to support Iran in its efforts to prop-up the embattled government of Syrian President Bashir Assad, it agreed to renew that funding after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected to a second term last month.
But Novik said “Iran too has no access to Gaza and will find it very difficult to supplement the loss [of funds] from Qatar. Bringing money to Gaza is very difficult when Israel and Egypt won’t allow it. As a result, Hamas is probably in one of the worst spots it has ever been in, and what they worry about most is an Arab spring-like uprising against them.”
To avert such an insurrection, he said, Hamas tries to channel the anger of Gaza residents against Israel.
“We are beginning to see an indication that this is what they are doing and it’s very risky for them,” Novik said. “They are encouraging Gaza youths to approach the Israeli border in protest, and we see the numbers increasing each day in an effort to provoke an Israeli reaction called the strategic corporal. It refers to a corporal on the line who opens fire when hundreds of protestors threaten to cross the border – and then it becomes a strategic development.”
Socioeconomic conditions in Gaza are becoming more difficult each day as pressure from Trump has encouraged the Palestinian Authority led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to tighten the noose around Gaza to compel Hamas to relinquish control to the PA.
For instance, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the flow of electricity to Gaza has now been reduced to no more than four hours each day — an insufficient amount to treat all of the sewage and forcing hospitals to resort to generators. And it recently stopped paying for some of the power Israel sends to Gaza.
In addition, it has cut off payments to Hamas terrorists who have been freed by Israel in prisoner exchanges. They had received payments as a reward for their terrorist actions.
And the PA reportedly cut the amount it provided Gaza’s hospitals and clinics — from $2.3 million in April to just $500,000 last month.
Should Qatar now cut off its funding of Hamas, there is the potential that “Gaza could implode,” warned Aaron David Miller, vice president for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former advisor to six secretaries of state.
Although the severing of Qatari funds to Hamas would be “fine in terms of diminishing the amount of sophisticated weaponry [reaching Gaza],” he said, “the last thing Israel wants is a blow up there because what is likely to happen is that the jihadists [in the Sinai Peninsula] who have been kept out would gain control.”
Miller pointed out that the jihadists have “demonstrated resilience against Egyptian forces, and so an explosion in Gaza poses serious consequences. This is very tricky.”
He noted also that despite Qatar’s funding of terrorist organizations, the country’s satellite news network Al-Jazeera “is the only Arab state to interview Israeli officials. … Even though it bankrolls Hamas, it has been quite amenable to dealing with the Israelis. … At this stage, I’m not sure whether the main analytical point is good for the Israelis or not.”
Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s director of government and international affairs, noted that efforts are already underway to try to “patch up the dispute,” and observed that the U.S. has a major military airbase in Qatar with some 11,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there. It serves as the U.S.’s command and logistics hub for operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The U.S. has a stake in Arab unity … and there will be political and commercial forces trying to get back a normal relationship with Qatar,” he said. “But this step is very positive and if it results in Qatar stopping its funding and hosting of Hamas and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, it would be a very positive development.”
President Trump has taken credit for the pressure now being placed on Qatar, tweeting on Tuesday that his trip to Saudi Arabia last month is already “paying off” and that this may be “the beginning of the end of the horror of terrorism. … During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
Novik agreed that Trump might have “emboldened” the Arab states into acting against Qatar. He noted that the Saudis, Bahrain and the UAE had recalled their ambassadors to Qatar in 2014 to protest Qatari funding of terrorist groups but they never severed diplomatic and economic relations.
“In Riyadh, Trump lumped Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State and al Qaeda together and this was perceived as giving a green light to [the Arab states] to go the extra step against the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas and its primary sponsor Qatar,” he said.
Novik added that he would like to see “Israel seize this opportunity” and take more confidence building steps that would lead to meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. One such step, he suggested, would be to re-designate a small portion of area C — which encompasses 60 percent of the West Bank and is now under Israeli civilian and military control — and relabel it as area B, which would be under Palestinians civil control.