Gaza City: At the end of a dirt track, an imposing new court complex stands as a symbol of Qatar’s investment in the Gaza Strip — back in the spotlight after a controversial ceasefire with Israel.
The Palace of Justice’s construction in Gaza is only the latest project financed by Qatar, whose involvement in the Palestinian enclave contributed to an Israeli political crisis in recent days that almost brought down the government.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on November 14 over a ceasefire that ended the worst escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 war.
When announcing his resignation, he called the ceasefire “capitulating to terror,” but also criticised recent aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip from Qatar that was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Earlier this month, Qatar delivered $15 million in suitcases to pay civil servants’ salaries in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, the first of six such planned payments for a total of $90 million.
Qatar has also been providing Gaza with fuel deliveries — again, approved by Netanyahu — to ease a severe electricity shortage.
Criticism by the hawkish Lieberman is unlikely to affect Qatar’s involvement in Gaza, some experts say.
“Qatar’s role in Gaza is of strategic importance to Israel as it allows the Jewish state to cooperate with Doha, while strengthening ties with an Arab Gulf state with whom it does not enjoy formal diplomatic relations,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East analyst based in Washington.
– ‘Streets are nice’ –
Engagement in Gaza has been a crucial pillar of Qatari foreign policy for some time.
Qatar and Hamas share links with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but its reasons for supporting the Gaza Strip go beyond that.
“The Palestinian issue remains important for all countries that want to play a role in the region,” said Jamal al-Fadi, a political science professor in Gaza.
Deep-pocketed Qatar, backed by huge gas resources, has provided support amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars to the enclave, where UN officials have repeatedly warned over deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
Projects include roads running along the seafront and from north to south as well as the court complex inaugurated in September.
At the entrance to the Al-Thani hospital in Gaza City, portraits of the emir of Qatar and his father remind visitors who paid for it.
Further south in Khan Yunis, Qatar has built a neighbourhood of 3,000 homes, called Hamad City, named for the former emir.
Gardens, schools and a mosque have been constructed amidst the new buildings.
“Before, my son’s house was 70 metres squared,” Aitaf Awda said.
Now seven of her family members live in a home 130 metres squared.
“We have a garden, the streets are nice,” she said. “The children aren’t stuck in the house anymore.”
Nearby, a shop across from the mosque is called “Thank You Qatar.”
– ‘Useful’ Qatar –
The latest statement from Doha’s foreign ministry talks about “its continued support to the brotherly Palestinian people”.
Hamas leaders have found refuge in Qatar, including former chief Khaled Meshaal, while some 100,000 Palestinians live there.
Beyond playing a role in a key regional cause, Doha has sought to position itself as a valuable asset to Western powers seeking progress between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Qatar has always seen the Palestinian issue, and specifically being a link to Hamas, as a way in which it can be useful to the Americans,” said Tobias Borck, an associate fellow with the London-based RUSI think tank.
That useful role continues, Neubauer says, with the close personal relationship between Mohammed al-Emadi, who runs Qatar’s humanitarian support for Gaza, and Jared Kushner, the White House adviser and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
“Qatar has coordinated its work in Gaza with Israel and the United States and is seen as a trusted partner,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
– Too close to Hamas? –
The policy brings risks though.
In June 2017, when Qatar found itself at the centre of a diplomatic confrontation with its neighbours, its relationship with Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, came under intense scrutiny.
“When Trump came to office, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia saw it as an opportunity to bring down the government of Qatar,” said Neubauer.
“The message they brought to Trump officials was that Qatar was supporting Hamas, in other words, it was supporting terrorism.”
Although the White House appeared to back the extremist-supporting claims against Qatar in the fevered days of June last year, Doha now seems to have convinced Washington its role is crucial in restraining Hamas.