The Meaning of the Emir’s Gaza Visit

The Meaning of the Emir’s Gaza Visit

Michael Johnson

The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, last week became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control over the area in 2007. While al-Thani used the visit to promise $400 million in aid to Gaza for various building projects, the emir’s trip was as much for his and Hamas’s political gains as it was humanitarian causes.

For Qatar, which has long tried to play an influential role in issues pertaining to Palestinians and the wider region as a whole, embracing Hamas is seemingly part of a larger plan to undercut Shi’ite Iran’s influence in the region in light of the changes caused by the Arab uprisings. From arming the rebels in Libya to possibly now doing the same for those in Syria, to showing an increased focus on Hamas, Qatar is working to strengthen parties and relations not in Iran’s interest. Specifically, if Tehran loses Hamas, it loses its strategically placed ally sitting on the border with both Israel and Egypt.

Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (R) and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh during al-Thani’s visit to Gaza, Oct. 23, 2012. (Photo: AP/Mohammed Salem, Pool)

For Hamas, the visit was deemed a diplomatic victory. The movement’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, touted it as the end of the Israeli blockade over the Strip. Indeed, the political blockade over the territory upheld by both Israel and Egypt for years is falling apart as a result of Egypt’s new government and policies. The Qatari emir traveled to Gaza from Egypt — which would not have been permitted under the former Egyptian government — while new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s office released a statement welcoming al-Thani’s visit as part of Cairo’s effort “to break the siege on the people” of Gaza.

Finally, al-Thani’s trip highlights the ongoing tension between Hamas and Fatah, which chose to boycott the visit. Fatah fears that Hamas in Gaza is increasingly being viewed as a legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, and with the emir deciding to not stop in the West Bank while in the area, the movement slammed the visit as one that would deepen the Gaza-West Bank divide.

Above all, the Qatari emir’s visit to Gaza illustrates a realignment in the region that hastened with the Arab uprisings and continues today, as once-shunned Islamist movements are being pushed to the forefront of Middle East politics.