Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Is Hamas searching for a new home after Qatar reportedly asked it to leave?

YOU ARE IN: Home Page

Alliances in the Middle East can crumble under the influence of shifting sands. In 2012, with Muslim Brotherhood governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and a Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime, it appeared that Qatar was the leader of a strong Sunni-Islamist bloc that also included Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas. But the Tunisian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood governments fell, the Gulf States ostracised Qatar, and now the Islamist-Sunni bloc appears to be collapsing.

A sure sign of this sea change came with a Turkish report last week by Aydınlık that Hamas' leader Khaled Meshaal had been asked to leave Doha. (Hamas had found safe haven in Qatar after it refused to back the Assad regime in Syria.) The story was denied by Hamas and Qatar, followed by a new report that Hamas has been asked to cease overt political activities in Qatar, according to the Arab language daily Asharq al-Awsat. Moreover, CNN, citing Hamas sources, reported that Meshaal and other Muslim Brotherhood members were most likely to head to Turkey.

Israel's Foreign Ministry congratulated Qatar for its decision to deport Meshaal:

"The Foreign Ministry, led by minister Avigdor Liberman, has advanced various moves to cause Qatar to carry out this step and stop aiding Hamas, directly and indirectly. To this end, minister Liberman and the ministry's professional staff have acted in overt and covert tracks with Qatar and other states. We expect the Turkish government to now follow suit."

So how did this strategic shift happen?

Qatar had been shunned by Egypt and the Gulf States for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates declared a terrorist organisation. The regional confrontation began with the ouster and arrest of Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. However, last month Qatar decided to mend its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and is now expected to decrease its public support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, including in Al Jazeera coverage (which is owned by Qatar, see previous blog posts).

Changes were already apparent in mid-September, when Doha ordered several prominent members of the Egyptian Brotherhood to leave Qatar.

On 20 December following a meeting between Cairo and Doha, Qatar said it would seek to maintain Egypt's status as the leader of the Arab and the Islamic world and added that, "the security of Egypt is the security of Qatar."

Explaining Qatar's possible rationale, Shlomi Eldar writes in Al Monitor:

"Professor Uzi Rabi, the director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center and a world-renowned expert on the Gulf states, explained in a 2014 conversation with Al-Monitor what prompts Qatar to forge and break alliances with neighboring countries and political movements in the Arab world. According to him, although Qatar is a wealthy emirate, it does not have the military capability to defend itself against external threats. The huge quantities of money its leaders and residents are raking in from the oil industry could tempt various forces in the turbulent Middle East to act against it, thus compelling it to forge alliances with ethnic groups, movements and states that will come to its defense when the need arises. When Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a rising power in the Middle East and the Arab world, the right step from his standpoint was to make a pact with it, thus protecting his emirate from a situation in which the regime might be toppled or undergo a revolution, which is what the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt. But now the Muslim Brotherhood is a bygone. And as far as his succeeding son is concerned, the same is true of Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot that is no longer essential."

Moreover, the decision to reconcile has also enabled Saudi Arabia to emerge as the key leader of a "solid Arab bloc", unchallenged by Qatar, as Zvi Bar'el of Haaretz reported:

"The reconciliation has cemented the political hierarchy in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia positioned at the head, surrounded by a block of coordinated, not to mention subservient, countries that will serve as an unofficial substitute to the Arab League. Such a coalition is likely to better serve the struggle against rebel forces, and especially in the war against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL."

This bloc is also likely to counter Iran's bid for regional hegemony and its pursuit for nuclear weapons.

Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer also noted in the Jerusalem Post that "This new alliance (which has good, if largely silent, relations with Israel), is perhaps the most important diplomatic development in the region since 2011."

In addition, Bar'el writes that Qatar's improved relationship with Egypt could also have implications for Gaza's reconstruction:

"At the same time, Hamas may be in for new difficulties, as Qatar is expected to coordinate any project or assistance for the Gaza Strip with Cairo. That will increase Sissi's control over the pace of reconstruction and development in Gaza.
This renewed dependence could have implications for Palestinian rule in Gaza inasmuch as without Qatar's assistance, or with conditional assistance that depends on Egypt's consent, Hamas' independent rule in Gaza will erode that much further. In this way, the Saudis, via Egypt, will be able in large measure to dictate Palestinian decision making."

Meshaal could of course return to the Hamas run Gaza Strip, as since Hamas took control of the territory, there is no real reason for a leadership in exile. Moreover, as Eldar notes, if Meshaal did live in Gaza he might be more open to compromises that would protect Gaza's civilians:

"He [Meshaal] has no need or reason to remain in exile. In the Gaza Strip, he will be able to understand the devastating repercussions of his policy on the lives of Palestinians. Whenever Gaza-based Hamas leaders tried to explain to the political leadership in Damascus and Qatar that the direction of compromise should be embraced, Meshaal was always the one to push for a military confrontation with Israel. That was the case during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 as well as during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. During the latter, it took many days to convince Meshaal to accept the Egyptian proposal to broker a cease-fire with Israel. Had he accepted the proposal during the first week of the war, probably many lives would have been spared. If he chooses Gaza as his new abode, it is possible that the lives of many of his people will be spared in the future."

However, there is no sign Meshaal is considering going to Gaza. He is instead reportedly looking to Turkey where he will likely find a warm reception. This new strategic landscape appears to have left Turkey out in the cold. While Turkey once had a proud tradition as a democratic state, Freedom House, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports show that Turkish democracy is eroding. As a Washington Post article noted, "The repression following the 2013 Gezi demonstrations reflects the increasingly authoritarian and police-state character of the Turkish regime." Freedom House describes Turkey as "partly free" and reports its press is "not free", as Turkey is notorious for imprisoning journalists and writers, including detaining 23 just last month.

Hamas is already operating in Turkey, and Israel claims that Turkey-based Hamas senior operatives have been responsible for planning and coordinating extensive terrorist activity including: the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenage boys Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Naftali Frenkel in June 2014; an attempt to overthrow PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas; an attempt to assassinate Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; and the planning of a terror attack at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.

Israel submitted a complaint to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and to NATO Headquarters on November 26, demanding that measures be taken against Turkey as a NATO member for allowing the unhindered activity of the Hamas headquarters in Istanbul. The complaint focused on Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri, who heads the movement in Turkey. Turkey, denied the charges.

Meshaal already receives a very public and warm welcome in Turkey. On December 27, Meshaal traveled to Turkey to take part in the annual conference of the Justice and Development Party and was welcomed by the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu. In his speech, Meshaal said he hoped that together with Turkish leaders,  they would "liberate Palestine and Jerusalem." Davutoglu's speech reportedly accused Israel of "attempts to reduce the Islamic character of Jerusalem," and repeated that Turkey and Palestine have a common stance, and declared that "Turkey will do whatever needs to be done to protect Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque".

However, it's not only Israel that has accused Turkey of enabling terrorism. Even Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has claimed that Turkey has become a centre for terrorist organisation "sleeper cells." Kılıçdaroğlu said the government had allowed the country to drift into a "terror swamp," claiming that the government "built its foreign policy on supporting terrorist organizations." Kılıçdaroğlu said Ankara's unsuccessful foreign policy had led Turkey to be "isolated" from the rest of the world in a manner designated by the government as "precious loneliness."

If Turkey wishes to arrest its declining reputation and increasing diplomatic isolation for enabling terrorists, reversing its increasingly blatant support for Hamas would be a good start. On the other hand, if Ankara wishes to achieve the opposite, it should allow Meshaal to establish Hamas' new world headquarters in Turkey.

Sharyn Mittelman