By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In late April I wrote about an exchange between Qatar, Hamas and Washington regarding the peace process. At the time the full details were not known. The issue has been overshadowed by eight weeks of deadly protests in Gaza. Hamas had sought to gain attention and sympathy by leading the “Great Return March” towards the border of Gaza.
I covered the protests at the Gaza border over the last month with articles about the second Friday, how the marches took place, those killed and how the protests have been organized. We have to understand the protests as a way for Hamas to become relevant again and show it has staying power. It chose a new method, combining mass protest with limited violence. Nevertheless more than 100 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded. Hamas chose two symbolic days as bookends, Land Day on March 30 and Nakba Day on May 15. It also ended up having the largest casualties during the day the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem. In a coincidence the marches have wrapped up in time for Ramadan.
Now Qatar is coming to play a role. Since last June Qatar has been in a Gulf crises with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. This relates to Israel because Qatar has historically funded Gaza through Israel. I covered the Qatar “facelift” for Gaza. Qatar also did outreach to pro-Israel Jews in the US, hoping they might aid it with the administration, or regarding other issues, such as Israel.
Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s assistant and special representative dealing with Israel-Palestinian issues, was in Jerusalem for the embassy opening. Then he went to Qatar. He tweeted in the midnight hours between May 15-16 that he had “Just finished meeting with Ambassador Mohammed bin Ismail al-Emadi, Qatari Envoy to Gaza. We discussed the urgent need to bring humanitarian relief to Gaza.”
Greenblatt has also been doing a major round of outreach in media regarding the Gaza crises. He wrote in English for The Jerusalem Post and also in Arabic. His statement was posted on the US Embassy in Egypt’s page. He says that Gaza has suffered under Hamas and that given the choice Gazans would not have chosen this. He also says that “Palestinians in Gaza need to reunite with the Palestinians in the West Bank under the leadership of one responsible Palestinian Authority.”
Now, let’s understand those comments in relation to his meeting in Qatar. “Met today in Doha, Qatar with Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. We discussed the urgent need for humanitarian relief for Gaza and the Trump Administration’s developing peace plan,” he writes on May 16. So here we can see that the larger picture, as presented in April, is to reunite Gaza and the West Bank under the PA and reduce Hamas’s role. Qatar has been tied to Hamas for years, but the idea is to wean Qatar from Hamas. If we read Qatar’s statements, put out through others, it has claimed that the US was the one that asked Qatar to take in Hamas leaders. Alan Dershowitz wrote in January at The Hill “The Saudis also claim that Qatar gave asylum to Hamas leaders, who live freely in Doha. Again, there is the conflict over the facts. The Qataris claim that American officials had asked them to allow the Hamas leaders to live in Doha, and that they have now left. Again, these factual issues should be subject to objective verification.”
This is very important because it shows Qatar is not just changing the narrative but is open to other changes as well. There has been controversy in Gaza about Qatar’s reduced funding and role, even though Qatar has said that it’s aid helps keep Gaza stable. In this context Qatar wants to show it is playing a positive role with the US regarding Gaza and the Palestinians. It wants to show it still has leverage as well. This is part of the larger grand strategy of Qatar to get the US to help solve the Gulf crises. So Qatar may be saying that it can help with Gaza, perhaps to usher Hamas to the sidelines, if the US could help with the GCC. These are the larger issues at play. The problem is that the PA was supposed to already be back in Gaza, but initial steps in the fall and winter 2017 did not result in full return of the PA. Then in March someone tried to kill the Palestinian Prime Minister and Majid Faraj during their trip to Gaza. This was designed to sabotage any PA return. Weeks later the massive protests began as Hamas flailed for relevance. The PA kept the protests small in the West Bank.
This is the context of the Greenblatt meeting and why it matters.