As the Palestinian Authority struggles to make payroll, the militant group is making friends and influencing leaders around the Arab world.
Countries across the Middle East are opening their coffers to support the Palestinian cause — but the funds are increasingly being diverted in a direction that portends renewed conflict with Israel.
The U.S.-supported Palestinian Authority (PA), on the one hand, is rapidly heading for the poor house. Even after a promised $100 million injection of funds from the Saudis (which has not yet been delivered), the PA will still be suffering its worst cash crunch in years. It has an estimated budget shortfall of $1 billion for 2012 and has already stopped making payroll to its government employees. Yet regional leaders seem nonplussed about their longtime client’s budget woes; their pledges of support continue to go unfulfilled.
Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, Hamas — the Islamist faction that violently wrested control of the area from the PA in 2007 — is riding high on the beneficence of its new allies. After a rocky period during which Iran’s largesse to Hamas dried up, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing slaughter in Syria forced the group’s external leaders to flee from their headquarters in Damascus, the group has regained its footing.
Hamas has two of the Middle East’s emerging Sunni powerhouses to thank for its change of fortunes.
Qatar, despite an uneasy alliance with Washington that hinges on hosting a key U.S. airbase and now a new missile-defense station, has quietly become one of the Palestinian Islamist party’s most generous new benefactors. In February, Hamas officials announced they had signed a $250 million deal with the Qatari government for reconstruction projects in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Doha is also providing funds for sports and housing projects in the Gaza Strip, according to other media reports.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Qatari support is Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas’ external operations. As Assad’s crackdown on Syria’s predominantly Sunni opposition grew ever bloodier, Asharq al-Awsat reported in February that Meshal would leave Hamas headquarters in Damascus permanently and carry out his work from Qatar. Indeed, Qatar appears to be the new global headquarters of the Hamas politburo: A June 2012 Congressional Research Service report confirmed Meshal’s relocation to Doha, noting that the Gulf emirate is the place where he "conducts his regular engagement with regional figures."
The Qataris also appear to be helping Hamas reintegrate into the Sunni fold. That’s a tall order, considering that Hamas had long been on the Iranian dole — the party is best known as an ally of the mullahs that has unleashed rocket attacks and suicide bombings across Israel, killing hundreds. But while the Iranian weapons pipeline still appears to be robust, known Iranian economic assistance has dwindled to small building projects — and Qatar is exploiting this window of opportunity. In late January, for example, Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani accompanied a Hamas delegation to Jordan, the first time the group had made an official visit to Amman since Jordan’s King Abdullah expelled it in 1999.
Turkey’s Islamist government has also embraced Hamas, both economically and diplomatically. In December, the International Middle East Media Center, run out of the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, cited Turkish sources claiming that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had "instructed the Ministry of Finance to allocate $300 million to be sent to Hamas’ government in Gaza." Hamas denied this, but Reuters and the Israeli newspaper of record, Haaretz, published subsequent reports, citing different sources, confirming this financial relationship.
It is in Ankara’s interest to keep direct assistance shrouded in secrecy — after all, it has a reputation to uphold among its NATO allies, who designated Hamas for its terrorist activity. But other Turkish assistance to Gaza is easier to document. In January, for instance, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported that the country would "help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip repair mosques," while its competitor, Zaman, quoted Turkish officials confirming that the country is "engaged in projects to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza," including the construction of a $40 million hospital.
Turkey, like Qatar, has also been an advocate of Hamas in the diplomatic arena for several years now. The ill-fated Turkish-led flotilla of 2010, after all, was designed to draw attention to the Israeli siege of Gaza and received government sponsorship. And Erdogan famously told an American television audience last year, "I don’t see Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas is a political party."
Erdogan is not alone in his sentiments. The political tide across the Middle East is also highly favorable to Hamas. Most obviously, the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy in Egypt’s presidential elections has energized Hamas. Following the Brotherhood’s victory, Haniyeh expressed confidence that "the revolution led by Morsy will not take any part in blocking Gaza" — a reference to the blockade enforced by fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The Palestinian Islamist group also enjoyed a red-carpet welcome in Tunisia, where the Islamist al-Nahda party has taken the reins of power. This was a particularly galling development for the rival West Bank government, given that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian nationalist organization that Yasser Arafat founded and Abbas now heads, had previously used Tunis as its headquarters in exile.
With Islamist movements gaining strength across the region, Hamas’s political rival has simply lost its mojo. The Palestinian Authority, created 18 years ago to midwife a two-state solution with Israel that has yet to materialize, is sorely lacking in popular appeal. It doesn’t help that the PA earned a reputation for being corrupt and ossified — two qualities that brought several Arab autocracies to their ends.
The PA’s Western allies, meanwhile, are becoming less willing to underwrite its activities. Despite a denial issued by the PLO to Foreign Policy, Saudi, Palestinian, and Israeli sources have reported that the White House is indeed threatening to cut aid if Abbas attempts to pursue recognition of Palestinian statehood again at the United Nations this year.
Hamas, unlike the PA, has never needed Western handouts. Since its inception in 1987, the group has operated entirely on regional cash. And despite its recent fallout with Iran and Syria, its platform of resistance to Israel enjoys wide appeal in the new Sunni regional order.
Washington once had the clout to deter countries like Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt from backing a designated terrorist group. But after the great regional tectonic shifts of the past two years, U.S. consternation has become a secondary consideration for these new governments.
True, Hamas’s new donors could moderate its politics. This is certainly the line that Turkey and Qatar will take. But more likely, the increased cash flow to Hamas will herald a new wave of rejectionism and — given Hamas’s track record — possibly a new wave of violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.