On October 23, 2012, history was made in the Gaza Strip as the Emir of the oil-rich Emirate of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani became the first head or ruler of any country to visit the isolated strip since Hamas took control of its governance in 2007. This followed the 2006 parliamentary election in the Palestinian Authorities won by Hamas, but disapproved by the western countries which branded the organization a terrorist outfit.
As was expected from western countries and its loyalist and dependent friends, there were streams of condemnation and expressions of dismay; from Iran came disapproval, borne more out of being upstaged by the Emir and Qatar than of hatred for Hamas. From residents of the Strip came both vocal and physical expressions of joy, and the Hamas leadership exuded confidence that the visit was an indication of international acceptance, instead of mere tolerance. Washington, London, and Canada complained and expressed “dismay”; Africa and Central America wondered what the big deal was about a visit; Asia remained uninterested and unperturbed; The Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government in Egypt smiled and patted each other on the back; Israel kept a watchful eye on the skies and its borders with Egypt; and the rest of the Arab Gulf leadership exchanged glances and nodded in approval. That is generally how these things work in international relations.
The international community had advanced notice of the Emir’s visit, because it had been planned for a while, and, I believe, discussed by and among his friends in the West, and colleagues in the Gulf region; tacit nods were given and advanced notices of responses forward through the back doors before the necessary security arrangements were put in place by Hamas and the neighboring countries, including Israel. In the case of Israel, an assurance that nothing untoward will happen along the bothers or skies of Gaza until the Emir is safely out of the area. Again, this is common practice in unique situations like the Emir’s visit to Gaza.
Why would the Emir of Qatar, a friend and supporter of the West, choose to visit a strip of land run by an organization branded as terrorists by his good friends and business partners? Well, the answers are two-fold; Qatar has a lot of money and, as they say: when money talks, b******* walks. Two, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as widely expected, is dead and an embarrassment to the West which is obviously incapable of solving this perennial problem. Not comatose, but dead as a door knell, and a face-saver was badly needed. The Emir’s visit, even though disguised as a project-commissioning trip, is an introduction of a different direction to the mess that has been the peace talks, and an attempt to convince the Hamas organization to embrace the path of peaceful co-existence not just with Israel, but with the Fatah organization which controls the rest of the internationally-funded concentration camp called Palestine.
Frequent clashes with Israel since 2007 has left the Gaza Strip starved of economic and social improvement; Hamas have spent meager resources repairing damages and burying their dead in Israeli hands than providing basic needs for their people. The international community, even the nations with deep pockets like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is growing weary of contributing funds to repair frequent Israeli damages in the area, and a concerted effort by Israel to dislodge Hamas from the Strip could result in an all-inclusive war that will involve Hezbollah, Syria, Al-Qaeda, and Iran. So, what is the next option? A slow, but calculated diplomatic shot in the arm, by those who could, to draw Hamas away from Iranian influence, wean it away from a psyche of violence beneficial to no one, and a path to peace and good neighborliness.
Will it work? It might, for these reasons; Hamas does not want to continue to be seen by its 1.7 million residents of Gaza as a failure. It is by now convinced that an unwinnable tit-for-tat with Israel is not the right course to continue. Also, it wants to prove to the rest of the Palestinian citizenry that it is capable of providing a better government than Fatah, and diplomatically, that it could work the field like anyone else. Most importantly, Hamas has recognized that the Muslim world has bigger and varied problems demanding immediate attention today than the Palestinian situation. Therefore, a nudge in a different direction could be a positive thing.
It would be easy to dismiss the Emir’s visit to Gaza as an isolated event, if there is no follow-up by any other national leader; however, it is expected that with the Muslim Brotherhood running things in Egypt, and keeping the border to Gaza open with guaranteed safe passage, many more leaders of different nations will follow in the Emir’s footsteps; and, depending on intensity of efforts by the Hamas security service to clamp down on dissident groups who continue to lob home-made rockets into Israel, many more countries will pledge needed funds to rebuild Gaza and create a vibrant economic and social life that does not have to depend on tunnels to import cars and spaghettis to the Strip.
It is believed that Western nations will continue to encourage such visits and pledges from behind closed doors, not only because it would reduce the region’s dependence on severely depleted UN funds, but allow them to focus on more serious issues as Iran’s nuclear program and what it means for the region; Syria after Al Assad; and Libya and Egypt after the Arab Spring.
We all must have to wait and see if what happens in the region going forward from October 23, 2012 will be a step in the right direction for both Hamas and the Palestinians.