Two weeks after US President Donald Trump brokered a “historic” normalisation deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar managed to broker a truce between Tel Aviv and Hamas-ruled Gaza. The UAE deal led Abu Dhabi to announce its public and official recognition of Israel and its intention to sign an official “peace treaty” later this month in Washington, despite never being at war with the occupation state.
To the surprise of the UAE, though, Qatar – which has since 2017 been boycotted by Abu Dhabi —announced on 31 August that it had brokered an unofficial ceasefire deal between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. The “understanding” announced by Qatari envoy Mohammed El-Emadi — who normally travels to Gaza via Israel — has ended almost three weeks of tit-for-tat military escalation. Palestinian activists affiliated to the resistance groups in the besieged territory have agreed to stop launching their daily incendiary balloons, while Israel has agreed to stop its air strikes and ease its punitive measures imposed on Gaza by allowing fuel and dual-use goods to enter the Strip. The fishing limit has also been extended.
The balloons along the nominal Gaza-Israel border fence have apparently started more than 450 fires in recent months, according to Israeli media. These have affected agricultural land and communities in southern Israel, which Palestinians call “illegal Israeli settlements” because it is where many of their grandparents used to live before being forced to leave.
Over the past two and a half years alone, Israel has bombarded various locations across the Gaza Strip on a frequent basis. This has been on top of the 13 years of Israeli-led siege and blockade which has placed tight restrictions on the goods and people allowed to enter and leave the territory.
The breakthrough with the truce came as the number of coronavirus cases in Gaza continues to rise. The pandemic threatens an already dire humanitarian crisis created by the blockade, with medicines and medical equipment in short supply, daily power cuts with no electricity for up to 20 hours every day, and a lack of fresh water.
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and has for the past 13 years been the main mediator for ceasefires and truces whenever necessary. This time, though, it was Qatar which did it despite many rounds of shuttle diplomacy by the Egyptians to defuse the tension and alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians. Both Egypt and Qatar are interested in winning Hamas over and thus increase their influence. Qatar has managed to bolster its political and financial position, which could pave the way for Doha to mediate a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel to return the bodies of Israelis in exchange for releasing hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners.
It’s true that Egypt shares a 12km border with Gaza, but Cairo argues that it is Israel’s responsibility to ease the blockade and, as the occupying power, allow Palestinians to travel freely to the outside world through the Erez Crossing and Israel. The reality is very different. Most Palestinians in the territory can only leave Gaza via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing, where they face an increasingly arduous journey across North Sinai to get to Cairo. Israel, meanwhile, only allows a small number of Gaza residents, usually patients who need advanced medical treatment, to travel, and then only after obtaining special permits that are very difficult to get.
Both Qatar and UAE have for the past decade been financing some infrastructure projects and offering humanitarian aid within Gaza. However, according to the Palestinians, Qatar has been more generous when it comes to paying the salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants and Hamas activists.
Because of this, some Palestinians believe that Qatar is exacerbating the political and social split which started in 2007 after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip nearly seven months after it won the parliamentary elections. According to some regional Arab countries, Qatar’s support is dangerous because it undermines the role of so-called moderates, namely Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, which signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1994.
However, that hasn’t really helped the PA, Fatah or even the PLO, because the Palestinian leadership has been weakened by Israel and the US to kill any dream of establishing an independent state and only allow the status quo to be maintained, with international financial support strictly conditional. Secular Fatah basically governs the occupied West Bank and Islamic Hamas is the de facto government in the Gaza Strip. The latter lacks proper communication channels with Abu Dhabi and so Qatar is welcome to step in and help in any way possible under the watchful eyes of Israel.
Although the details of the Qatari-mediated truce aren’t clear, and its success is based on Israel’s commitment to allow the regular monthly Qatari money to get through to Gaza, the timing of this successful mediation effort is significant. Israel needs Qatar to be on its side as a balance in the regional power game and a tool to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the PA. The game is controlled by Israeli interests, which put the UAE and Qatar in the same basket. Having both Gulf States on their side makes it a win-win scenario for the Israelis.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.