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Israel puts Qatar in the crosshairs as Hamas reasserts itself in Gaza

James M. Dorsey

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With the Gaza ceasefire and prisoner exchange talks stalled, Israel and its hardline US supporters have stepped up long-standing efforts to discredit Qatar, the main mediator between Hamas and the Israeli government.

The anti-Qatar campaign accuses the Gulf state, of forging relations with problematic groups and supporting the likes of Hamas and the Taliban as part of its conflict mediation policy, even though those relationships were encouraged by the United States and, in the case of Hamas, Israel.

The stepped-up efforts coincide with Israel effectively walking away from Qatari, Egyptian, and US efforts to negotiate a pro-longed ceasefire in the four-month-old Gaza war and a prisoner exchange that would free the remaining 136 Hamas-held Israeli hostages and the bodies of captives killed during the war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press conference with Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, at Diwan Annex, in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 6, 2024.

Hamas abducted some 250 people during its October 7 attack on Israel. Approximately 120 hostages were released in November during a one-week Qatar-mediated truce in exchange for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The anti-Qatar campaign scored a tangible success earlier this month with Texas A&M University’s announcement that it was shutting down its two-decade-old Qatar campus.

Handsomely funded by Qatar Foundation (QF), Texas A&M is one of eight foreign universities, including Georgetown, Northwestern, Well Cornell Medicine, and Carnegie Mellon, alongside Qatar’s Hamid bin Khalifa University, with operations in the Gulf state’s Education City.

In a statement, the foundation said Texas A&M’s decision was “influenced by a disinformation campaign aimed at harming the interests of QF... It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M University has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making processes.”

Texas A&M said its decision was “due to heightened instability in the Middle East.”

The closure followed the publication of a report by the New York-based, pro-Israel Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) alleging that Texas A&M had shared sensitive nuclear energy and weapons development research with the Qatari government. Texas A&M denied the allegations.

ISGAP report on Qatar and Texas A&M. Photo:

The report said Qatar paid Texas A&M more than US$1 billion for the rights to all intellectual and material assets developed in more than 500 technology projects in sensitive fields such as nuclear science, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, robotics, biotechnology, and advanced weapons development.

"Allowing Qatar, with its links to terrorist organizations, to have complete control of this research through IP ownership creates unacceptable risks of technology transfer and appropriation of breakthroughs with military applications," the report warned. It suggested the advanced technology could find its way to militant groups like Hamas and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia.

More sanguine Israeli scholars argue that “the goal (of Qatari) investments is not necessarily to steal secrets like the Chinese, but to acquire influence. What's important to Qatar is how it can influence American policy through soft power. I'm less afraid of technology theft – I see things like the partnership with Texas A&M as a Qatari investment,” said Yoel Guzansky, a former head of Iran and the Gulf at Israel's National Security Council and Middle under three prime ministers and a Middle East scholar who wrote his dissertation on Qatar’s hedging policies.

Conveniently, Israel, as it demonises Qatar, buries its own engagement with Hamas as well as the fact that Egypt long saw the group as an asset in countering Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

The Israeli campaign is not that far in time from the days that Mr. Netanyahu asked Qatar to fund the salaries of Gaza’s Hamas administration and some reconstruction after five earlier wars.

Mr. Guzansky noted that his efforts as the head of Harpoon, a secret Israeli unit created to foil money transfers to militants and Iran, fell on Mr. Netanyahu’s deaf ears. “His policy changed to the transfer of money from Qatar to the Gaza Strip. And then the international system stopped blocking Hamas' money, because they said to us, 'If you won't handle it, why should we?' That started in 2014,” Mr. Guzansky said.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), founded by Yigal Carmon, a former advisor to Israel’s West Bank and Gaza occupation authority and Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, has produced in recent months a series of reports designed to bolster Israel’s campaign against Qatar.

In MEMRI’s latest broadside, Mr. Carmon asserted, echoing Mr. Netanyahu, that the hostage negotiations were faltering “because Qatar is not pressuring Hamas. It sees itself as a mere go-between. Qatar isn't pressuring Hamas despite the fact that in reality, Qatar is the lifeline of Hamas – its hope, its future, its power to continue to fight and to hold the hostages.”

Ignoring that Hamas was founded in 1986 in Israeli-occupied and besieged Gaza at a time that Israel tacitly saw the group as an anti-dote to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Mr. Carmon charged that “Qatar built Hamas from a small organization into a military and political power. It took pride in its training of ‘Hamas security officials.’… Without Qatar, Hamas is doomed."

To be fair, Mr. Carmon’s tirade also took Mr. Netanyahu to task for allowing Qatari funds to flow to Hamas.

Mr. Netanyahu “violated Israeli and international anti-terrorism laws by allowing the money from Qatar, a state sponsor of terrorism, to reach Hamas, recognized as a terrorist organization across the West – thereby transforming this violation into a policy – until it exploded in his face,” Mr. Carmon said.

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu asserted that “the release of hostages can be achieved through strong military action and tough negotiations, very tough negotiations. That tough position has to involve the exertion of pressure. And the exertion of pressure is not merely on Hamas itself, but on those who can exert pressure on Hamas, beginning with Qatar.”

In response, Qatar foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari called on the prime minister “to focus on the path of negotiations that serves the security of the region and end the ongoing tragedy of the war instead of issuing such statements whenever it suits his narrow political agenda.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s hard line in the ceasefire negotiations and effort to discredit the mediator has as much to do with domestic Israeli politics as with not wanting to hand Hamas a victory when Israel has yet to show substantial progress in destroying the group not only militarily but also politically and organisationally.

Hamas’ ability to maintain its position in the ceasefire and prisoner exchange negotiations highlights Israel’s failure so far to wipe the group off the face of the earth.

US intelligence estimated earlier this month that Israel has killed or captured at most 30 per cent of Hamas’ 30,000-strong fighting force. The Israeli military said in early January that it had killed or captured up to 9,000 Hamas fighters.

Adding fuel to the fire, Hamas has resurfaced in parts of Gaza from which Israeli forces have withdrawn in the past month in the belief that they had eliminated the group’s presence in parts of the Strip.

A man sits on the rubble as others wander among debris of buildings that were hit by Israeli airstrikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Khaled / Associated Press

In Gaza city, the Strip’s largest urban area, Hamas has recently deployed uniformed and plainclothes police officers to prevent the looting of shops and houses abandoned by residents and restore law and order and paid salaries to some of its civil servants.

In doing so, Hamas, on the back of its governance infrastructure and charity network, positions itself as the only entity willing and able to administer Gaza and provide essential services in a wasteland in which Israel curtails the flow of desperately needed aid and seemingly systematically destroys Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.

Hamas’ effort to return a semblance of governance exploits Israel’s Catch-22.

Focussed on destroying the group and hesitant to shoulder responsibility for providing aid and basic services as it refuses to lay out its vision for Gaza once the guns fall silent, Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place.

It is damned if it assumes responsibility for governance of the Strip, 19 years after Israeli troops withdrew and imposed an Egyptian-supported blockade of the Strip, and damned for a war that makes Gaza unlivable in violation of international law.

Further complicating things, Israel’s demonisation of Qatar is paralleled by an Israeli campaign to shutter the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), the foremost aid organisation operating in Gaza and the Strip’s third largest employer.

Palestinians carry bags of flour and other basic food products received as aid to poor families, at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) distribution center, in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. Photo: SAID KHATIB / AFP

At least 18 countries last month suspended UNWRA funding after Israel and the United States asserted that 12 of UNWRA’s 13,000 Gaza employees had participated in Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

By refusing to engage in Gaza’s civilian governance, while denying other non-hostile actors a role in post-conflict reconstruction, Israel is providing Hamas with the silver platter of legitimacy that it needs to survive the conflict,” said peace and security scholar Rob Geist Pinfold.

Israel’s anti-Qatar campaign is closely linked to post-war governance in Gaza and the West Bank. Beyond the ceasefire and prisoner exchange talks, the campaign is designed to thwart initial Qatari attempts to mediate between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority.

A reconciliation between the two feuding entities would make a Palestine Authority-led administration of post-war Gaza and the West Bank more feasible.

Mr. Abbas last week reportedly endorsed a potential Qatari mediation effort and the formation of a technocratic government in Gaza and the West Bank in talks in Doha with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

PLO Executive Committee member Ramzi Rabah last week told Independent Arabia TV that Hamas willing to join the PLO, the Palestine Authority’s backbone, endorse a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and support a technocratic government without demanding that the group be part of it.

The issue of governance in war-ravaged Gaza as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem shot on Monday to the top of the agenda with the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) historic week-long hearings on the legality of Israel’s 57-year-long occupation of Palestinian lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The International  Court start hearings on Israel’s occupation of Palestinians lands. UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek

The hearings are in response to a December 2022 United Nations General Assembly request for an ICJ review of Israel's "occupation, settlement and annexation ... including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.”

The Assembly asked the ICJ to issue a non-binding advisory opinion on how Israeli policies “affect the legal status of the occupation" and what legal consequences arise for countries and the United Nations from this status.

Fifty-two countries and three international organisations are scheduled to present on the Israeli occupation, which the Palestinians and much of the international community deem illegal.

It’s the largest number of parties to participate in any ICJ case since the court was established in 1945.

Israel has opted to submit a written rather than an oral presentation in a case that is separate from ongoing proceedings at South Africa’s behest on whether its conduct of the Gaza war amounts to genocide.

“The case will put before the court a litany of accusations and allegations and grievances which are probably going to be uncomfortable and embarrassing for Israel, given the war and the already very polarized international environment,” said Israeli law professor Yuval Shany.

Palestine Authority foreign ministry official Omar Awadallah spelt out how uncomfortable and embarrassing the case should be.

“We want to hear new words from the court. They’ve had to consider the word genocide in the South Africa case. Now we want them to consider apartheid,” Mr. Awadallah said.

Israelis fear that the fallout of an ICJ condemnation of the Israeli occupation could go beyond words.

"If, for example, in its opinion, the court rules that settlements constitute an international war crime, countries could stop selling arms to Israel, as a court in the Netherlands has already recently ordered. Israeli goods are liable to be labeled and personal sanctions against settlers, such as were imposed in the United States, could be stepped up,” said Israeli lawyer Yuval Sasson who specialises in international law.

Earlier this month, the United States Biden sanctioned four Israeli settlers accused of attacking Palestinians in the West Bank.

Perhaps, most importantly, an ICJ designation of the Israeli occupation as illegal, despite not being legally binding, would create a legal framework for negotiations that would strengthen the Palestinians’ ability to reject Israeli and US efforts to limit a future Palestinian state’s independence and sovereignty.

Michael Lynk, a former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian Territories, noted that an ICJ designation would put the United States on the spot.

“This would go back to the UN General Assembly. The Assembly will try to commit the Security Council to take action to end the occupation. President Biden has talked throughout his presidency about a two-state solution. This will be the litmus test of the US commitment to international law and human rights,” Mr. Lynk said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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