DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The courtship of Hamas between rivals Iran and Qatar has been one of the Middle East’s intriguing subplots of the Arab Spring. The bloodshed in Gaza has now sharpened their competition for influence with the Palestinian militant group and the direction it takes in the future.
Qatar has sought to use its vast wealth to win over Hamas with investments and humanitarian aid and encouraging Arab partners to do the same — part of the hyper-rich U.S. allied nation’s broader campaign to bring under its wing Islamist movements that have risen to power in the region the past two years. Qatar’s influence with Hamas could edge it away from armed action toward diplomacy.
For Hamas, there are benefits in both directions — and it’s happy to play both sides. During a celebration rally in Gaza City after an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire came into place ending fighting between Israel and Hamas, Gazans wildly waved flags of Qatar, along with those of Egypt and Turkey, in gratitude for those countries’ diplomatic support.
At the same time, Hamas‘ leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal, who is based out of Qatar, gave a very public thanks to Iran for standing by Gaza with crucial military assistance. Fighters in Gaza also hailed the new reach of their arsenal, with Iranian-designed Fajr-5 rattling Israel by reaching the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Visiting the Syrian capital Damascus on Friday, Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who is close to the country’s supreme leader, promised leaders of Palestinian militant groups that his country would continue to boost “the resistance’s capabilities in confronting the Zionist arrogance and aggression,” according to Palestinian official Khaled Abdul-Hamid, who attended the meeting.
Embarrassed by the Syrian regime’s crackdown on a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising, Hamas leaders based in Damascus for years broke with Syria and left for Qatar and Egypt. Though Iran continued to send weapons to Hamas, the break undermined the “Axis of Resistance” grouping Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas that Iran has assembled in the Arab world.
For Hamas, hyper-rich Qatar is a political and economic lifeline, a key part of the militant group’s attempts to bolster its ties with the Western-backed Gulf states in efforts gain more international legitimacy. Last month, Qatar’s emir became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control five years ago. The Gulf state pledged nearly $500 million in aid and a song called “Thank you, Qatar” played on Gaza radio and TV as the emir was given a hero’s welcome.
During the heat of the Gaza battle the past week, Qatar’s prime minister gave a blistering dressing down to the Arab League during an emergency meeting, saying Arab nations had to do more to fight Gaza’s poverty and isolation than just pass resolutions.
“We can’t give hope without delivering,” Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani told the gathering last week in Cairo.
Two days after his outburst at the Arab League meeting in Cairo, Sheik Hamad suggested that his country would be willing to open dialogue with Israel on a long-term Gaza truce if it leads to lifting the blockade. The Arab Spring, he added, has made Israel feel more vulnerable, but also perhaps more ready to make deals.
“We need to talk with everyone to reach a comprehensive peace,” he told CNN on Monday.
For Qatar, the outreach to Gaza also is part of far wider ambitions to become a major policy-shaper in the Middle East. The tiny Gulf nation has emerged as a strong backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has risen to power in Tunisia and Egypt after the fall of those countries’ autocratic leaders in early 2011.