Haifa, Israel – With the dangerous and ever-changing political dynamic in the Middle East and North Africa replacing the previous status quo with new governments with very different agendas, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar has emerged as an increasingly significant player in the power-politics of the region.
The state that is home to the Al Jazeera TV corporation, that will stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament, and whose capital Doha is fast becoming a major international business centre, is governed by the Al Thani family, with Crown Prince Hamad al Khalifa al Thani the ruler of the oil-rich state holding the reins of power since deposing his father in a peaceful coup in 1995.
While Qatar is seen in some quarters as a progressive Arab state and enjoys generally good relations with the United States and other western democracies, concern has been growing over the apparent ambitions of the Crown Prince to step into the vacuum left by the recent travails of both Syria and Iran, the long-time sponsors of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
The recent official visit of the Qatari leader to Gaza – the first foreign leader to visit the Strip - in which he made a massive $400 million donation (ostensibly for ‘infrastructure projects’) to the Hamas regime, has only served to increase a sense of unease in some quarters that Al Thani’s huge wealth is being used to insert himself as a major figure in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and complicate the already near-impossible impasse reached in the peace process.
Noel Clay, spokesman for the US State Department, told FoxNews.com: “We share the international community’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, including those Palestinian civilians residing in Gaza. We urge all those wishing to provide international humanitarian support to Gaza to do so through established channels to ensure that the Palestinians’ humanitarian needs and Israel's legitimate security needs are both met.”
Clay stressed however, “We oppose engagement with Hamas, which remains a destabilizing force in Gaza and the region, and which remains a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
Clay’s statement strongly hints at US dismay at the Qataris behaviour. The US has aggressively pursued a policy of sanctions against Iran and other countries that sponsor terrorism, so will Qatar’s brazen public support of Hamas result in a clamp down on business ties with the aspirational Gulf state?
The US-Qatar Business Council, for example, is made up of a raft of household names, including major companies with strong business interests in Qatar. The likes of the Chevron Corporation, Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, The Boeing Corporation, and Lockheed Martin, all value their ties to Qatar, but should such US business luminaries really be engaging with the financial backers of Hamas, an internationally acknowledged terrorist regime?
FoxNews.com attempted to put that question to the US-Qatar Business Council, but no one was available to comment.
Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US policy in the Middle East at the Begin Sadat Center for Stategic Studies, believes that Qatar has seized its opportunity to become a major player in the Israel/Gaza conflict.
“Qatar’s interest is to diminish as much as possible the Iranian influence in Gaza...where Iran still sponsors Islamic Jihad. Hamas has long been receiving weapons and training from Iran, but since the war in Syria relations between Hamas and Iran have been uneasy. The US believes that Hamas is a destructive movement in Gaza and the Middle East and supports Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah government (in the other Palestinian territory on the West Bank). Qatar’s strengthening of Hamas is therefore counter-productive from the US point of view, because it reduces Abbas’ power and will increase the influence of Hamas in the West Bank.”
Professor Gilboa continued, “The other major drawback however for the US of Qatar’s intervention on the side of Hamas... is that it means that the US has to rely on Egypt’s President Morsi to restrain Hamas, through their mutual ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Qatar’s hosting of the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and their provision of safe haven to Omar Bin Laden, the fourth son of Usama Bin Laden, who reportedly described his father’s death at the hands of US Special Forces as, “a criminal act”, has also raised eyebrows.
Was it merely coincidence then that the significant increase in rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel that precipitated the violent eight days of hostilities between the two sides that threatened to destabilize even further the whole Middle East, followed only days after Qatari Crown Prince Al Thani’s visit to the territory, his vast financial donation, and his promise of ongoing support for the radical Islamist regime?
Gilboa believes that Qatar is playing a very dangerous game in its use of Hamas as a proxy stick with which to beat Iran.
“The ideal US policy would be to keep Hamas strong enough to counter Iran and Islamic Jihad, but weak enough not to threaten Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This is a very difficult balancing act to maintain. It is obvious to me that if Hamas draws Israel into a war again, Israel will invade the Gaza Strip and eliminate Hamas from Gaza. There is no question in my mind about it.”
“The conflict in Gaza is not just about Gaza” Gilboa concluded. “Everyone is looking to see its effects and repercussions on the region as a whole.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter @paulalster