Qatar pushes to the forefront in Gaza diplomatic efforts

Doha has taken a hawkish tone in the current crisis, adding diplomatic influence to its previous financial and humanitarian support for Hamas.

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The mood in Gaza was jubilant when the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to visit the Hamas-run territory last month.

Just weeks later, Qatar's relationship with Hamas has evolved: Israel's aerial attacks stand to solidify the Qatari role in Palestinian politics.

Doha has taken a hawkish tone in the current crisis, adding diplomatic influence to its previous financial and humanitarian support for Hamas. The moves come as part of a broader push to sway Hamas from its Iranian backers toward new patrons in the Arabian Gulf, analysts said.

"We're expecting to see an acceleration of ties between Qatar and Hamas, because now there is more need for it than ever before," Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, said yesterday.

"Before the crisis, Qatari engagement was mostly about humanitarian and financial aid, but now we are going to see more diplomatic engagement too, something that we didn't have in the past."

When the Israeli air strikes began, Doha's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani,called for a strong international response. "This filthy crime must not pass without a punishment," he said last week.

In recent days, Qatar's top leaders have pushed for a seat beside Egypt at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to broker a truce between Hamas and Israel.

The Qatari emir and prime minister flew to Cairo for meetings with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called the Qatari prime minister yesterday to discuss the crisis.

Qatar suspended its ties with Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008. In January 2009, Qatar asked the head of Israel's office in Doha to leave the country. It does not officially recognise Israel as a state.

Doha's increasing influence was also on vivid display at a meeting of the Arab League over the weekend, where the Qatari prime minister, who is also the foreign minister, called for a review of the body's dealings with the Arab-Israeli peace process.

"The whole situation needs a clear and honest review... We can't keep giving hope without delivering," Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, told the gathering, calling for a more activist role for the bloc. "We are meeting today and we will issue a statement. The statement will mean nothing."

Qatar's newly activist stance comes in the context of a broader shift in which Hamas has moved away from its traditional backers in Syria and Iran.

After breaking with the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, Hamas vacated its Damascus headquarters and Mr Meshaal moved to Doha. Iran's support for Hamas was also reported by Reuters to have waned late in the summer, over tensions on policy toward Syria. Qatar rushed in to fill the gap.

Doha has invested months in building stronger ties with Hamas that culminated in the October 23 visit of the emir. That trip came with a promise of US$400 million (Dh1.46 billion) in aid, added to frequent supplies of fuel.

Qatari-funded building materials were set to arrive in Gaza through Egypt, a move that Hamas's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, had jubilantly declared would aid in the "break of the economic blockade and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice".

The emir's visit seemed to open up further opportunities for Gulf countries to invest in Gaza. Bahrain sent a high-level delegation to Gaza just weeks after Qatar.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also reportedly shifted $250m and $300m worth of aid, respectively, from the Fatah-run West Bank to Gaza.

With Gaza under siege, Doha must now work even harder to bring Hamas into the Arab fold, said Jane Kinninmont, a senior fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

"If they are to persuade Hamas to complete a strategic shift away from Iran, Egypt and Qatar will need to be able to show that their relations with the West give them some bargaining power in this conflict," she said.

"Alternatively if the diplomatic efforts of the West's allies are seen as having no effect, the path of armed resistance will seem all the more attractive."

"A lot can be done by the Gulf," to end the crisis, said Azzam Tamimi, a London-based Palestinian writer and editor of Ahiwar TV. "It would be great if some of the other Gulf countries applied political pressure. Qatar is already doing this quite well."