LocalLabs News Service Sep. 15, 2016, 12:47pm

Mohammed al-Emadi has become a familiar figure in Gaza and the West Bank in recent years. Since becoming Qatar’s ambassador to the Palestinian territories and the head of the National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, Emadi has traveled frequently between Gaza, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Doha to meet with Palestinian officials and oversee the delivery of Qatar’s multimillion dollar aid packages. While both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have welcomed the arrival of Qatari aid to help alleviate their immediate financial pressures, Qatar’s role as a leading donor to Palestine has been inspired by interests beyond humanitarian assistance and is often conducted through unreliable organizations.  

Qatar has made its commitment to assisting Hamas and Gaza’s citizens unmistakably clear in recent years. The Gulf country’s August grant of $31 million, which covered one month of salaries for nearly 24,000 of Gaza’s government workers, was just the latest installment in a relationship that began after Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory. Since that time, Qatar has hosted Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at the Doha Summit, Emir Sheikh bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Gaza, and the wealthy Gulf state has served as Hamas’ mentor in the international arena all while handing over millions to support the fundamentalist group. In addition to such visible signs of support, Qatar has also acted covertly to finance Hamas through a number of different “humanitarian organizations.”

While the Qatar-Hamas relationship and Qatar’s Gaza-based projects have led to widespread media coverage and attention, the PA has also been on the receiving end of Qatari financial assistance. In 2013, Qatar granted $150 million in debt relief to the PA, a move that was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following a meeting with Qatar’s Foreign Minister in Paris. Two years later, Doha granted Qatar a $100 million interest free loan to the Palestinian Authority to help pay civil service salaries after President Abbas visited Qatar and expressed his gratitude to the Gulf state for its commitments to the Palestinian cause.

While drawing praise from Palestinian ministers and Hamas officials alike, Qatari support for the PA and Hamas has allowed the Gulf state to frame itself as the mediator necessary to repair the divided state of Palestinian politics. Although most of Qatar’s assistance to the Palestinian territories has landed in Gaza in recent years, President Abbas and the PA are aware of the massive financial opportunity cost that would accompany a collapse in relations with the Gulf state. Of course, Qatari leaders would welcome the chance to act as a broker for Palestinian politics as an opportunity to serve as the champions of Palestinian unity, to normalize Hamas and its radical ideology, and to firmly establish a base of leverage in Ramallah. In the past, Qatar has not shied away from encouraging reconciliation between the parties. More recently, Mr. Emadi has led several Qatar-funded conferences and gatherings of Palestinian politicians in what appears as a new Qatari push for leverage in Palestinian politics.

But Qatari interests behind its generous assistance to Palestine are not limited to peace-brokering or the reconstruction of Gaza’s dilapidated infrastructure. Instead, Qatari aid constitutes a broad effort, involving both Hamas and PA, to replace an Iranian regime preoccupied with more pressing regional developments as Palestine’s primary benefactor. While Hamas is keen to resume its ties with Iran, especially in the realm of military assistance, their relations have been hindered by conflicting views of the Syrian and Yemeni wars. Although tensions between the militant group and Iran have simmered since Khaled Meshaal and Hamas leaders abandoned their longtime Damascus stronghold, the Syrian crisis exposed their contradictory worldviews beyond the Palestinian territories. While there is still confusion surrounding the current level of Iranian support for Hamas, relations between the two parties are likely to remain strained as long as they quietly withhold conflicting hopes for the redrawing of the political maps of Syria and Yemen.

Sensing a unique opportunity in the form of strained Iranian-Hamas relations, Qatar’s leadership, despite its own commitments in Syria and Yemen, is seeking to stifle Iranian influence while elevating to the not-so-honorable position as the prime supporter of Palestinian militancy. Yet, unlike Iran’s unconcealed and even vaunted backing of Hamas, Qatar has chosen to move quietly and calculatedly in its support for groups across the region. Similar to the country’s negligence in targeting domestic fundraisers of terrorist groups in Syria and the existence of government-aligned charities with ties to terrorism, Qatari financial support for Hamas has also been quietly laundered through government-associated charities with deep pockets. Qatar’s more overt moves, including the recent grant of salary payments for thousands of Gaza’s public sector workers and the country’s multimillion dollar commitments to rebuilding Gaza, serve as thin disguises for Qatari intentions to help the down-and-out Muslim Brotherhood manage its severe financial troubles and its crumbling infrastructure. Other moves, like the welcoming of Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal to Doha, leave few doubts about the country’s intentions.

Yet, the implications of Qatar’s aid in Palestine extend far beyond the country’s support for Hamas. The continued dispersion of multimillion dollar aid packages, to both Hamas and the PA, comes with an expansion in geopolitical influence in the Palestinian territories for the small Gulf state. In line with its billion-dollar offerings to Egypt during the Morsi-era, Qatar continues to demonstrate its eagerness to utilize its aid as an overtly geoeconomic instrument aimed at establishing and maintaining influence. While Morsi’s toppling led to a sudden halt in Qatari aid, the lack of viable political opponents to Hamas and the PA has allowed Qatar to develop a base within the Palestinian political establishment through a steady flow of aid. More often than not, the help comes when it is needed most and serves as a clear reminder for those in Ramallah and Gaza City of the importance of maintaining a steady, if not obedient, relationship with Qatar.

One does not need to look any further than the PLO’s relocation to Tunis to understand how a sponsor state can influence a non-state actor’s behaviors. Isolated from the Palestinian people they claimed to be serving and at whims of their Tunisian backers, the PLO and Abbas formally recognized the State of Israel at the Oslo Accords. Today, Qatar is gradually establishing itself as a primary sponsor of the PA and Hamas through a geopolitically strategic use of its aid during an era of Palestinian politics characterized by ongoing financial troubles. Yet, unlike the transformation of the PLO while backed by Tunis, growing Qatari influence in the Palestinian territories will only result in more covert support for Hamas and an unpredictable Doha leadership calling the shots in Ramallah.

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