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On Qatar and Hamas in Gaza 26, October 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Qatar.
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The following article appeared on ForeignPolicy.com

A deeply contrarian streak has taken hold in Qatar these days. Insulated by U.S. security guarantees, eager to use its burgeoning fiscal reserves, and propelled by its elites’ reformist zeal, Doha continues to exert a disproportionate influence on regional politics. Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s latest move was a dramatic visit to the Gaza Strip, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007.

Unlike some of its less imaginative Arab rivals, Qatar saw Hamas’s regional isolation as an opportunity rather than a problem. Despite its alliance with the United States, Doha has been nurturing its ties with the Palestinian Islamist group for some time: Its worst kept secret is that Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s leader, has had a house there for many years and has been increasingly seen in Doha since Hamas was forced to leave Syria in early 2012. Doha has also opened its pocketbook to Hamas, pledging $250 million in February — a gift that was increased to $400 million upon the emir’s visit.

The injection of funds, however, is not the most important aspect of Sheikh Hamad’s trip. By breaking Hamas’s regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group’s hand against its Palestinian rivals. An official from the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of the West Bank, begrudgingly welcomed the visit while noting that “no one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority.”

Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel felt no need to soften its criticism. An Israeli spokesman carped bitterly about the emir’s trip, saying that the emir was “throwing peace under a bus.”

The visit further highlights Israel’s loss of influence with Qatar. Relations between the two countries warmed with the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 (reputedly close to Meshal’s house) as the two sides looked to ship Qatari gas to Israel, with Enron acting as the intermediary. The deal failed, however, and relations ebbed and flowed until December 2008, when Qatar cut ties in protest of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rumors that Doha was attempting to restart relations were finally put to rest with a leaked memo from Israel’s Foreign Ministry labelling Qatar as a “leading activist” against Israel, decisively cutting whatever informal relations remained.

The Iranian angle

Iran, with whom Qatar maintains cordial official relations, joins Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an unlikely triumvirate watching proceedings in Gaza with glum resignation. Tehran officials are doubtlessly looking back nostalgically to happier times only a few years back, when their proxy Hezbollah all but defeated the Zionist Entity — winning Iran no small degree of Arab support for its material support to the Lebanese militant organization.Back then, Hamas was also still ensconced in Iran’s camp, and Syria was a stable ally that appeared to be gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East.

Indeed, while Israel and the Palestinian Authority may view Qatar’s embrace of Hamas with chagrin, it is Iran that is the central loser in this drama. The emir’s visit is part of a larger Qatari policy to unseat and reorient crucial Iranian allies around the Middle East — and by extension, amputate a long-used, effective limb of Iranian foreign policy. This is a remarkably forthright policy, for Iran will not — and cannot — take it lying down.

This new policy is most evident in Syria, where Qatar is explicitly and unashamedly supporting the 19-month insurgency with money, equipment, and at the very least light weaponry — little less than a declaration of war against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s core ally.

But Qatar’s new activism is also apparent in Gaza, where Doha has likely decided to take action precisely because of Hamas’s break from Iran. When Tehran stopped sending money to Hamas after the group failed to publically support Iran’s embattled ally in Syria, Qatar saw an opportunity to split the Palestinian group from its long-time sponsor. While its $400 million donation is earmarked for humanitarian development, not only is such support fungible, but there are doubtless other financial arrangements being made between Qatar and Hamas on this trip — further strengthening the ties between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Doha.

This move will, of course, catalyze another round of speculation that Qatar is supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. That Qatar’s supports the Brotherhood is not in doubt — indeed, it hardly tries to conceal its efforts at engaging with the Islamist movement in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and now with Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot. Yet Qatar is not nefariously trying to replace the Shia Crescent with a Brotherhood Banana, curving from Syria through Gaza, Egypt, and on to Libya and Tunisia. Doha is much more pragmatic and less Machiavellian than that: It is leveraging its relations where they exist, and looking to bolster popular, effective, moderate Muslim parties with whom it has relations.

Qatar’s vanguard role in weakening a key plank of Iranian foreign policy indicates that Doha must feel deeply secure with its relationship with Tehran, for it would hardly undertake such aggressive moves if it felt imminently threatened. Indeed, there is an obvious flashpoint between the two regional powers: Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field, which has been responsible forQatar’s recent spike in wealth. Traditionally, this has meant that Qatar treated Iran with a great deal of respect. Relations were carefully improved in the 1990s as the field was being developed, as Doha sought to avoid an escalation after numerous instances of Iran attacking and stealing equipment from unmanned Qatari gas rigs.

Today, Qatar’s relations with Iran are as pleasant as ever on the surface. However, the fact that Qatar is overturning one of the key tenets of its foreign policy by antagonizing Iran is a surprising and forthright move by the Qatari elite, which clearly does not accept conventional limits on what is and what is not possible in the Middle East.

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WSJ: flagrant intellectual dishonesty 29, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Opinion.
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Abu Muqawama has an excellent post skewering Elliott Abrams for what amounts to blatant intellectual dishonesty. Abrams wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In this he quoted two reports on the Palestinian Authority.

The World Bank reported this month that “If the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” The West Bank’s economy will grow 8% this year, said the bank. Meanwhile, tax revenues are 15% above target and 50% higher than in the same period last year.

and

Regarding security, cooperation between Israeli and PA forces has never been better. This month the International Crisis Group acknowledged that “In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) largely has restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second intifada. Militias no longer roam streets, uniformed security forces are back, Palestinians seem mostly pleased; even Israel — with reason to be skeptical and despite recent attacks on West Bank settlers — is encouraged.”

These quotes from reputable scholarly sources paint a rosy picture. However, these quotes are flagrantly taken out of context and wholly misrepresent the general thrust and conclusions of the reports themselves.

One of the key conclusions of the The World Bank is that

Sustainable economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza, however, remains absent. Significant changes in the policy environment are still required for increased private investment particularly in the productive sectors, enabling the PA to significantly reduce its dependence on donor aid.

The obstacles facing private investment in the West Bank are manifold and myriad, as many important GoI restrictions remain in place: (a) access to the majority of the territory’s land and water (Area C) is severely curtailed; (b) East Jerusalem — a lucrative market — is beyond reach; (c) the ability of investors to enter into Israel and the West Bank is unpredictable; and (d) many raw materials critical to the productive sectors are classified by the GoI as “dual-use” (civilian and military) and their import entails the navigation of complex procedures, generating delays and significantly increasing costs. … Unless action is taken in the near future to address the remaining obstacles to private sector development and sustainable growth, the PA will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will not be able to underpin a viable state.

As Abu Muqawama notes:

The point of the whole friggin’ World Bank report was that the very real economic gains we have witnessed in the West Bank over the past few years will turn out to be ephemeral if they are not followed by a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That political settlement doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, but it has to address the areas of concern highlighted in the above paragraph. And that bit about “access to the majority of the territory’s land and water” being severely curtailed? Any guesses from the readership what the World Bank research staff thinks is doing the curtailing?

As for the Crisis Group Report, Abrams has cherry-picked (again) to an absurd degree, ignoring its central conclusions.

The undeniable success of the reform agenda has been built in part on popular fatigue and despair – the sense that the situation had so deteriorated that Palestinians are prepared to swallow quite a bit for the sake of stability, including deepened security cooperation with their foe. Yet, as the situation normalises over time, they could show less indulgence. Should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapse – and, with them, any remaining hope for an agreement – Palestinian security forces might find it difficult to keep up their existing posture. … Without a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process or their own genuine reconciliation process, Palestinians will be stuck in their long and tenuous attempt to square the circle: to build a state while still under occupation; to deepen cooperation with the occupier in the security realm even as they seek to confront it elsewhere; and to reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves.

This is really, really naughty stuff. Pure and simple, whole-scale, grade-A, Pinocchio-like dishonesty. Read the original post for more withering and well-sourced criticism of Abrams’ article.

Holocaust survivor on hunger strike 29, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor is about to begin a hunger strike to pressure Egyptian authorities to let through Gaza Freedom Marcher participants into Gaza itself. That is an exceedingly powerful gesture.

The strength of Middle East nationalism as a search for legitimacy 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Foreign Policies, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Since Napoleon raised his army on a diet of nationalistic fervour, flags and anthems, people in the West have been only too aware of the powerful nature of nationalism. This is not to say that it is not powerful elsewhere. However, from a Western perspective, since Western states have – on the whole – been established, bordered and Weshphalian entities for longer than elsewhere in the world, there is, it could be suggested, something of an implicit assumption that nationalism could be ipso facto stronger in the West. In the Middle East, for example, how could the forces of nationalism possibly be that strong, one might think, in such young states (some of which only became independent in 1971) where there is such a manifestly important and pervasive uniting element at the supra-national level in Islam?

Whatever the apparent logic of such a position, it is clearly wrong: nationalism in the Middle East is thoroughly entrenched and all too visible. During the Iraq-Iran war, many on the Iranian side expected that their Shia brethren in the Iraqi army (and the vast majority in the country) might switch sides to the Iranians or at least not fight. Eight years of bitter, attritional and epically costly warfare later and such notions were thoroughly disabused. In a talk given at Durham University, the Iraqi Ambassador to America echoed these sentiments when discussing Shia in power in Baghdad today: they did and do not ‘sell out’ Iraq to Iran in any way, shape or form, act as Iranian stooges or even fail to drive a hard bargain where necessary. They were Iraqi first and Shia second.

Exactly the same logic has been apparent in Bahrain recently. Bahrain, like Iraq under Saddam, is mostly Shia but ruled by a Sunni minority. In the Bahraini case the country is approximately 2/3 Shia. There have always been exceedingly close ties with Persia/Iran but some 230KM away. Indeed, the ruling al Khalifah family have always feared the closeness of Iran and their history of overlordship. Their fears are not eased by periodic hawkish remarks from various Iranian parliamentarians, such as last week’s comments by Ali Akber Nateq Nouri the speaker of Iran’s parliament bemoaning that Bahrain used to be the 14th province of Iran. Far from inciting his Shia, Farsi-speaking former country-men in Bahrain to stand up against the Sunni minority (whether that was what he was intending or not) such actions created a vociferous nationalist reaction and general opprobrium.

“Three Arab summits in response to the Gaza offensive.”

3-conferences-for-gaza-peaceAl-Quds Al-Arabi, London, January 17, 2009 (MEMRI)

The manifest strength of nationalism in the Middle East is one of the reasons that, despite most of the region having a common language, an over-achingly common religion, a common enemy in Israel, a common cause in the Palestinian situation and common social, cultural and political histories, so many divisions emerge when trying to come together over a given issue. The most recent example of this was in the establishment of conferences to deal with the Israeli invasion of Gaza: one involving Qatar, Iran and Syria, another with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a third in Kuwait. As Gregory Gause writes, however, these divisions are nothing new and indeed were even more divisive in the recent past.

It could be argued that the desire for each Arab country to be seen as ‘fixer in chief’ stems from their inherent lack of democratic legitimacy. Without a popular mandate, leaders have to justify their positions in a different way. Acting as a leading country in the region, one that is standing up to Israel or assiduously helping the Palestinians, is all currency that may help fill the democratic void.

Bombing does not work: from the Blitz, to Tokyo to Gaza 7, January 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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Marc Lynch, the Professor of Political Science at GWU and the author of the long running Abu Aardvark blog comments on a talk given by the Israeli Ambassador to America . In the q and a towards the end, the Ambassador is persistently asked about Israel’s strategy in Gaza. I.e. how exactly their military force will weaken Hamas politically: what will literally happen to achieve this end.  Aside from referring to the numbers of Hamas fighters killed and their infrastructure degradation, he had no answer. Indeed, according to Lynch, he seemed to advocate the absence of a strategy as a positive step. Thus, the great unknown of how Israel actually hopes and plans to achieve their stated war goals remains something of a mystery.

This situation is somewhat reminiscent to the British and the Germans in World War Two. Both sides thought that by carpet bombing each other’s cities (Coventry and Dresden to name the most infamous examples) they would destroy the spirit and the support of the other’s population. Therefore – so the logic went – this now terrified population would thus seek to check their leaders and beseech them to seek peace or surrender. This was the prevailing theory at the time. It was, of course, proved not only to be incorrect but caused the exact opposite: it galvanised public opinion against their enemy and behind their political authorities. This kind of mistaken logic was also employed in the American fire bombings of Tokyo which killed more people than the Atomic bombs yet still did not begin to cause the Japanese population to revolt or seek the end of the war.

These examples, it seems to me, are a reasonable approximation of what it happening in Gaza and Israel. Both sides think that they can frighten their opposition into surrender. It is something of a seductive logic which initially might make sense. It ignores, however, countless other factors such as decades of built-up hate and anger and indeed, Israel’s own experiences. When suicide attacks and rocket attacks affect Israeli cities, this does not cause swathes of Israelis affected to demand that their government give up, surrender or even retreat in their policies. Exactly the same can be said about the previous Israeli attacks in Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed, support for Hamas is higher than ever. According to one Fatah local leader, ‘everyone’ in his area now supported Hamas. Vicious attacks on one’s community do not cause people to shrink away from the attackers, but they bring the population ever closer, united against a common enemy under the auspices of whatever group promises retribution.

The Gaza tunnels 14, October 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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For some months or years now I have read various articles about the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. I’ve read that they are needed if not essential to help the Palestinians affected by the Isreali blockade which is causing massive and lethal shortages in the territories. Yet when i read these sorts of articles, i brought with me – as always – my own particular cultural baggage. In this example, unwittingly, I assumed that the tunnels would be like the resistance tunnel in occupied France, some of which I’ve seen. Such tunnels were, for example, dug under houses so that the resistance could disappear there should the Germans come to the house looking for them. They could fit one or two people in side by side, perhaps, in the largest examples and were generally quite short. This was my assumption. Yet, a recent article goes to show just how careful one needs to be with assumptions. Indeed, as the saying goes, they make an ass out of you and me.

For the tunnels, or at least some of them, across the Gaza-Egypt border are somewhat bigger than the resistance’s tunnels. According to Al Sharq Al Awsat some are as deep as 18 metres and as long as 1km. A further revelation (for me, at least) in the article was that there are apparently some 1100 tunnels traversing the border. Needless to say, with this number of tunnels operation, there are a whole raft of concerns from child labour to the real and evidenced danger of tunnels collapsing. So much so that supporters have begun a charity to help those killed by working in the tunnels.

Cartoons from the media 9, February 2008

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al hayat, london, 7.2.08

Al Hayat, London. 7.02.08