Amid mounting pressure on the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip, the effects on the Palestinian Authority (PA) remain uncertain and might even result in the enhancement of the restrictive policies towards the Strip.
On 5 June, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in addition to Egypt officially cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, including the expulsion of Qatari diplomats as well as cutting air, land and sea routes. Officially, Qatar is being isolated for its “embrace of various terrorists and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”, as an official Saudi Arabian statement read. The unexpected move did not only leave the Qatari population in disarray, as the country is highly dependent on imports, but will emanated across the region as a complex interplay of events unfolds.
The move by the Gulf States may come as a surprise to many, but must be seen in the context of a recent trip by US President Donald Trump to the region. In his trip, Trump did not only sign a major weapons deal with Saudi Arabia worth 110 billion US-Dollars immediately and for a total of 340 billion US-Dollars within next ten years, but he also encouraged the Gulf States to combat extremism and build an anti-Iran alliance. It seems reasonable to suppose that the sword dance the US President joined in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh on 20 May was no mere saber-rattling, but the opening credit to a reshuffling of alliances in the Middle East. The Gulf States seemingly welcomed the invitation, leaving Qatar in a position where it must choose to either align with its neighbors or face the consequences of prolonged regional isolation.
Qatar has long faced criticism for its welcoming posture towards high-ranking members of Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, to which the former was formally connected until Hamas released a revised Charter earlier this year. Qatar has made significant financial contributions benefitting the Gaza Strip. For instance, Qatar financially supported the establishment of schools and hospitals. In 2016 Reuters reported that Qatar made a commitment worth 30 million US-Dollars to pay the salaries of public sector workers. However, Qatar does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization and thus denied the accusations of funding extremists. The close Hamas-Qatar relations may be a thing of the past as several sources claim that Qatar has responded to the pressure by handing over a list of Hamas officials that would have to leave the country. Once of them is Saleh al-Arouri, a high-ranking member of the Al-Qassam brigades, Hamas’ military wing, who has moved to Malaysia.
Interestingly, while Egypt is party to the diplomatic boycott, it received a high-ranking delegation of Hamas, including the new head of the politburo in the Gaza Strip – Yahya Sinwar – earlier this month. According the Jerusalem Post, Egypt has offered to supply the Gaza Strip with much needed electricity and to increase the freedom of movement through the Rafah border crossing. Egypt has a vital interest in increasing security and combating terrorism. It has therefore demanded that Hamas hands over 17 men wanted by Cairo on charges of terrorism and a cessation of smuggling weapons into the Sinai Peninsula, which it considers a base for the Islamic State. While the implications amid the ongoing crisis remain unclear, this could mean that Hamas is already trying to circumvent the effects that the embargo of Qatar has on the movement and the Gaza Strip.
While Hamas is caught in the eye of the storm, the PA is cautiously quiet. After it had implemented a set of policies bound to increase pressure on Hamas, the PA leadership in the West Bank will likely feel vindicated by recent events. The PA has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, as the movement is now dragged through the media and mentioned alongside organizations such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. This will likely give President Abbas the tools to sustain a set of restrictive policies towards the Gaza Strip and possibly induce either a humanitarian crisis or another outbreak of hostilities between Hamas and Israel – or both.