29 September 2018

Gaza Is Bringing Egypt and Qatar Closer, but It Can't Keep Them Together

A comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains extremely far off.

Concerned powers such as Israel, the United States, Egypt and the Gulf states are all carrying out policies intended to prevent a major war in Gaza.

Qatar and Egypt, two ideological foes, are seeking the same objective of a stable Gaza, but neither of them controls enough of the situation to prevent a full-on return to war.

The two states will only tolerate one another so long as an Israeli-Palestinian truce holds — and if it falls apart, each will try to pin blame on the other.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the oldest in the modern Middle East. For decades, from its start in 1948 to the early 21st century, powers great and small sought to find a permanent solution. But in the wake of the Arab Spring and Iran's growing nuclear capabilities, the best that most countries are hoping for is ensuring truces and cease-fires. This is especially true in the volatile Gaza Strip, which has been de facto ruled by Palestinian group Hamas since 2007. Hamas is inching toward establishing a long-term truce with Israel, but Gaza is still home to regular clashes between the Israeli Defense Forces and Gazan militants.

The Big Picture

The age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been a central dispute in the Middle East, but these days most key powers are focused more on containing it than solving it. The struggle remains volatile and unpredictable, and it has led otherwise unfriendly states — especially Qatar and Egypt — to work alongside one another for the common goal of keeping the conflict from spiraling into an unwanted war.

In this chaotic environment, most outside powers are pursuing the common goal of stability, including traditional foes such as Egypt and Qatar. But though these two rivals are working to keep another Gazan war from erupting, they're not building bridges across the lines of the Saudi-led blockade. If anything, the process is deepening mistrust between them, and if the truce falls apart and there is another Gazan war, both Doha and Cairo will race to blame the other. 

The Situation in Gaza

The Gaza Strip's economic conditions have been dire ever since Hamas took over. But since Gulf Cooperation Council states blockaded Gaza's main economic sponsor, Qatar, in June 2017, things have gotten particularly bad. Hospitals, schools and power plants in Gaza are all running low on funds, largely because Qatar has halted aid out of fear that the United States — a critical ally — would view the country as a terrorist sponsor.

Without money from Qatar, Gaza's already feeble economy crashed and all reconstruction work from the last Hamas-Israeli war in 2014 was put on hold. Hamas could find no other substantial aid because Turkey and Iran either could not or would not scrape together cash because of their own unfolding economic crises. Hamas was thus stuck with a set of unappealing choices: either regain economic aid but sacrifice autonomy by reconciling with its Palestinian rival Fatah, or flirt with a new war against Israel and endure civilian casualties in an attempt to spook Israel and the international community into restoring at least some of Gaza's economic lifelines. Refusing to abandon its resistance to Israel, Hamas chose to risk war.

Enemies With a Shared Cause

Since former Egyptian President (and member of the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood) Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, the Egyptian and Qatari governments have been in conflict over the role of political Islam — and the Brotherhood — in Egypt and more broadly throughout the Middle East. The dispute caused enough of a divide that Cairo joined the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. But though Egypt wants to banish Qatari influence back to Doha, it's also finding itself working toward the same goals as Qatar in Gaza, a strip of land that neither country wants to explode into a full-blown battle zone. 

Egypt and Qatar have focused their stabilization efforts in different and complementary areas. Egypt, for example, is working with Israel on the political and security front: The two are coordinating closures and openings of the Gaza Strip's borders, and Egypt has been sending mediators after Israeli strikes on Gaza to facilitate exchanges with Hamas.

Qatar, meanwhile, is focusing on economic stability, stepping up aid pledges with the blessing of the United States, which is cutting aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that underpins much of Gaza's social services and economy. Washington is eager to encourage other countries — including Qatar, which made a $50 million pledge in spring 2017, to help fill that gap. (The United Arab Emirates also pledged $50 million in a subtle war of influence over who would be seen as the primary patron of the Palestinians among the Gulf Arabs, but the Emiratis' other pledges have not been as wide ranging as those of the Qataris). Qatar has also said it would pay for many of the infrastructure projects, including electricity and desalination efforts, intended to improve Gaza's economy and increase the chances of a successful cease-fire.

Cairo wants to see Hamas and Israel agree to a long-term cease-fire along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt so it can restore order in the Sinai, where a yearslong insurgency is challenging Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's claim as the only leader able to maintain peace in Egypt. (It's particularly important for al-Sisi to fend off potential rivals within the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's true power brokers). And since the proximate cause of violence in Gaza is its economic crisis, Egypt will tolerate Doha's influence-building program as long as Qatari money keeps flowing back to the Strip. 
What's Next?

Egyptian and Qatari alignment on Gaza is unlikely to result in a breakthrough over the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar. After all, Egypt can get what it wants from Qatar in Gaza — namely, economic aid — without ceding ground on the blockade. Qatar, meanwhile, can gain the influence that comes with aiding Gaza without giving anything to Egypt.

Should a long-term truce take hold in Gaza, the area may, in fact, become host to heightened competition between Egypt and Qatar, as well as other powers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. If the blockading powers see Qatar re-emerging as a major influence, they will feel compelled to stop it, especially if Qatar grows closer to Washington — the Emiratis and Saudis are lobbying the U.S. to take their side in the blockade. Already, the United Arab Emirates is pledging aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency to match Qatar in a clear attempt to keep the agency from coming under too much Qatari influence.

Realistically, though, a lasting Gazan truce is unlikely. Hamas' legitimacy is being challenged by activists, Palestinian Islamic Jihadists and extremists, all of whom want a more aggressive strategy against Israel. And in Israel itself, southern mayors and citizens are angry with regular arson attacks and the public is skeptical that the right-wing Likud party is leading it toward more of the same challenges. 

If new conflicts emerge, both Qatar and Egypt will seek to gain advantage by publicly blaming each other for the outbreak of violence. For Egypt, being seen as a key security guarantor for Israel is a major reason why the United States supplies it with arms, so being responsible for a failed Gazan truce could jeopardize that coveted status. For Qatar, being seen as ineffective in Gaza could weaken its own U.S. ties, which are critical for warding off Saudi pressure amid the blockade.

With so much to gain and lose, Egypt and Qatar both want approval and respect from Israel, especially since Israeli-American relations have been very close recently. Plus, both sides still want the propaganda benefits that come with being a patron of Gaza. For Egypt, this is largely a domestic consideration; al-Sisi's legitimacy is not only underpinned by providing security for Egyptians but also by the lingering vestiges of pan-Arabism, in which Cairo is meant to protect the interests of Palestinians and be a key diplomatic power in the Middle East. For Qatar, whose diplomatic standing has been damaged by the blockade, renewed influence in Gaza is a chance to prove it is a viable partner to potential friends in the Islamic and Arab world. 

Despite the blockade, Qatar and Egypt will continue to seek the common goal of a quiet Gaza. But if the tenuous truce collapses, that cooperation will end — and the Cairo-Doha divide will grow wider.

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