Is Qatar paying the price for its pro-Palestine stance?
On Tuesday, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, made it clear that a key demand of his government in return for restoring ties with Doha was for Qatar to end its "support" for Palestinian group Hamas, which champions armed resistance against Israel and was the winner of the last general election held in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Jubeir, for the first time in Saudi history, suggested Hamas was an "extremist" group. During Trump's visit to Riyadh in late May, the US president proclaimed the group a terrorist outfit akin to the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda, and Riyadh did not object.
Saudi Arabia previously provided support to Hamas and welcomed its leaders as recently as 2015. However, on the back of the Iranian nuclear deal, both the kingdom and its ally, the UAE, have been making increasing offers of normalisation with Israel - with whom they share Iran as a common foe.
Since the events of the Arab Spring, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also become hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Hamas is affiliated, seeing it as an imminent threat to their regimes.
Qatar, by contrast, has maintained good relations with most Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, and invested tens of millions of dollars in the reconstruction of besieged Gaza, decimated by years of Israeli war.
Qatar, although closely allied to the United States, has maintained an independent policy on Palestine, which has often caused it problems with pro-Israel officials in the West.
Now, Qatar's neighbours seem to have joined the fray, inching closer to fully endorsing Israel's narrative on groups such as Hamas, in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism, without defining either.
It is worth noting that the UAE hosts and supports Hamas' arch-rival, exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, whom it hopes to install as the next Palestinian president.
"Qatar is being punished for its role and influence in the Palestinian arena, with both President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas," Ibrahim al-Madhoun, political analyst, told The New Arab.
"Qatar's role is one of the causes of the Gulf crisis, as its balanced position and influence has become a source of annoyance for its rivals," he added.
Taysir Muhaisen, political commentator, agrees. "All the parties, in light of the emergence of a new US administration, have decided to pressure Qatar, which has had a different approach to many issues including the Palestinian issue, dealing with Hamas and all Palestinian factions... and helping Gaza weather the blockade," he said.
|Qatar is one of the few foreign backers of Hamas, and faces massive pressure from its Gulf neighbours to cut ties with the Islamic militant group|
Disaster for Gaza
Qatar is one of the few foreign backers of Hamas, and faces massive pressure from its Gulf neighbours to cut ties with the Islamic militant group. If it does, the result could be disastrous for Hamas-ruled Gaza, according to an AP analysis.
Qatar has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in roads, housing and a major hospital in the tiny territory. Its infrastructure projects are one of the few job-creators in a devastated economy.
Gaza already suffers from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, widespread destruction from a string of Israel-Hamas wars, economic misery and chronic electricity shortages. For Hamas, Qatar's money pumping into the economy is a vital lifeline bolstering its rule.
The mere prospect of losing Qatari support prompted Hamas on Wednesday to issue rare criticism of Saudi Arabia, which has been leading the campaign against its tiny Gulf neighbour.
Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said the Saudi call for Qatar to cut ties with the Palestinian group was "regrettable", and contradicts traditional Arab support for the Palestinian cause. He accused Saudi Arabia of siding with "American and Zionist calls to put Hamas on the terrorism list".
Qatar has denied the allegations made against it by Riyadh. But its small size and reliance on food imports from Saudi Arabia could make it susceptible to pressure.
This could spell trouble for Hamas. The group - which calls for Israel's destruction, even if it has offered long-term interim cease-fires - is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and its Western allies. Israel and Hamas have fought three cross-border wars that caused large-scale damage in Gaza.
Qatar doesn't support Hamas directly, but its large-scale projects have significantly eased the burden on Hamas authorities and given it some credit for bringing this money to Gaza.
In 2012, Qatar's then-emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza, the first and only head of state to do so since Hamas routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah militants in Gaza during internecine fighting a year after Hamas won elections in 2006. The emir announced a grant of $407 million for humanitarian projects.
The grant is being used to build a housing complex of 3,000 units. Two phases of the project have been completed and families moved into their new homes, dubbed the Hamad Residential City, in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.
Last month, Palestinian contractors and Qatari envoys signed deals to start the third and final phase of Hamad City. Now, those deals could be in question.
Using that grant, Qatar also built a specialist prosthetic centre, the first of its kind in Gaza. Qatar paved roads, repaired or rebuilt mosques and oversaw dozens of other infrastructure projects.
Following a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2014, Qatar was the largest single donor to the reconstruction of Gaza, pledging $1 billion at a Cairo-hosted international conference.
Qatar also helped pay for fuel and electricity deliveries from neighbouring Israel, which, despite its enmity to Hamas, supplies energy to Gaza for what it says are humanitarian reasons.
On Wednesday, bulldozers with Qatari flags were seen leveling land overlooking Gaza City's coastal road. The spot is supposed to house the headquarters of Qatar's Gaza reconstruction mission and a residence for an envoy.
In Hamad City, new shops and stores are opening, including a pharmacy named Qatar, barber shops and a video gaming cafe as more families move in. The complex is the largest in Gaza.
Wael al-Naqla, a contractor, has won a bid to build several buildings in the final phase. Thanks to Qatari money, he is one of the few business owners who can hire workers in today's Gaza.
"Without these projects, we would have been idled a long time ago," he said, voicing fears that the funding could soon dry up. "We are afraid I won't be able to keep paying for my 20 workers and they will not be able to eat."
The construction here is one of the few bright spots in Gaza.
The situation here is grim. The territory suffers from rolling power cuts, with just four hours of electricity at a time, followed by 14-18 hours of blackout. Tap water is undrinkable, youth unemployment is estimated at 60 percent. Thousands wait for a rare chance to exit the blockaded territory.
Mkhaimar Abusada, an independent Gaza political analyst, said the pressure on Qatar could increase Hamas' political and financial isolation.
This week, a high-level Hamas delegation was summoned to neighbouring Egypt, which has had cooling relations with Hamas. "If these talks don't lead to new understandings getting Hamas out of its difficult political situation, I think there will be more crises," said Abusada.
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