WASHINGTON – A Republican-led House panel delivered a blunt bipartisan warning to Qatar on Wednesday, backing legislation that would slap sanctions on any countries or individuals providing financial and material support to the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill by voice vote, setting the stage for the full House to consider the measure. The bill specifically criticized Qatar for having backed Hamas and hosting senior members of the militant group. The legislation cited a March 2014 Treasury Department report that said Qatar "has for many years openly financed Hamas."
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke ties with Qatar earlier this year over allegations the Persian Gulf country funds terrorism. President Donald Trump echoed the accusation.
Late last month, however, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a rare display of cooperation among the oil-rich Gulf states when he unveiled a coordinated counterterrorism effort involving Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. The countries agreed to sanction a number of Yemenis and an entity suspected of financing the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.
Jassim Al-Thani, a media attache for the Qatar government, said U.S. and Qatari officials met last week in Washington to discuss progress on a separate agreement between the two countries to intensify Qatar's counterterrorism efforts. The deal "builds upon Qatar's work to counter terrorism and goes further than any country in the region in cooperation with the United States," Al-Thani said.
In late June, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the committee the crisis between the Gulf States and Qatar presented an opportunity to tell Qatar to "quit funding Hamas, quit doing these things in Gaza that they are doing." But Haley changed her testimony a few months later, according to an answer she gave to a follow-up question from the committee.
"While the Qatari government does not fund Hamas, it does allow Hamas political representatives to be based in Qatar, which Qatar believes limits Iran's influence and pressure over Hamas," Haley wrote.
The committee's bill underscores the complicated relationship between Qatar and the United States. Qatar is home to the massive al-Udeid Air Base, the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command where nearly 10,000 U.S. troop are stationed as part of the campaign against the Islamic State group and the war in Afghanistan.
Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Dan Donovan of New York said last month that "Qatar is the master of playing all sides." The country, they wrote in an op-ed published in The Hill newspaper, has used an "innovative approach" to avoid being punished by the U.S. and European nations for backing terrorists groups:
"Pursue good relations with the United States, make false promises about combating terror, lavishly fund western universities and business projects - all while quietly financing and promoting terror, allying with Iran, and leveraging an American air base as an insurance policy against punishment for promoting terror," the congressmen wrote.
Qatar is about the size of Connecticut and sticks out like a thumb on the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf. Qatar has the highest per-capita income in the world due to its natural gas reserves. Qataris practice an ultraconservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism.
Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since seizing control of the coastal area in 2007. Hamas has since clashed repeatedly with more radical groups, which have carried out their own attacks against Israel in part to undermine Hamas.
Donovan said Wednesday that Hamas has been "intertwined with Iran ideologically, politically and militarily." Qatar, he added, "now has a strategic opportunity to sever itself from Hamas and by extension, Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism."
The committee also approved a bill that would suspend U.S. financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority until it takes credible steps to end acts of violence against U.S. and Israeli citizens. The legislation is named after an American, Taylor Force, who was stabbed to death in Israel by a Palestinian. It reflects bipartisan outrage over what lawmakers have termed a "pay to slay" program endorsed by the Palestinian Authority.
Force was an MBA student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and a West Point graduate who was visiting Israel in March 2016 when he was killed. Force was from Lubbock, Texas. His parents live in South Carolina.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a separate version of the Taylor Force bill in early August. Palestinian officials criticized the Senate legislation as misinformed and counterproductive.
Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner