The Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, decided to visit the Gaza Strip this week, becoming the first Arab ruler ever to visit the Palestinian enclave, not merely as a benign patron with a large $245 million dollar check for the beleaguered population. He has big plans for its rulers, the Islamist Hamas, which could have wide-ranging repercussions for Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority headed by Hama’s rival Mahmoud Abbas.
He will no doubt enjoy a warm welcome, not least by making naught of the Israeli sea blockade against the Gaza Strip where Hamas seized power in a coup in 2007, two years after Israel handed the territory over to the Palestinian Authority.
Sheikh Hamad’s plans for Gaza are an extension of his own regional ambitions. Two years ago, he began making his mark on Middle East politics in Libya, where he pressed his security and special forces and cash into the NATO operation for overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi. After Qaddafi was killed, the Qatari emir took a hand in the Syrian conflict, sponsoring some of the factions fighting to rid their country of Bashar Assad.
Both of these Al Thani projects remain unfinished, although they shed some light on his mode of operation and objectives.
Until the early winter of 2011, Qatari political, military and intelligence input and the Obama administration’s goals in Libya went hand in hand, although Washington chose to lead the operation “from behind."
But after Qaddafi was killed exactly a year ago on Oct. 20, their ways parted. The United States threw its support behind one group of former insurrectionists while the emir espoused more radical Islamist factions.
This division of labor evolved into the main obstacle to establishing stable central government in Tripoli. It also provided fertile ground for the radical Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist Salafis to flourish.
The exact relationship between radical factions and militias under Qatari patronage and the Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) network branching out across North Africa is hard to pin down with any precision. But it leaves a gray area which was exploited for the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
To this day, the circumstances of this attack have not been fully established – even after it become a hot potato tossed back and forth between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their campaigns for the presidency. But Libya’s factional infighting bears strongly on the Qatari emir’s visit to the Gaza Strip because it is reflected in the power politics of the Gaza Strip spilling over into Egyptian Sinai among the ruling Hamas, the Salafi groups and al Qaeda factions.
Since Qaddafi’s downfall, rivers of smuggled arms have underscored the Libyan connection by transforming Sinai and Gaza into the biggest munitions trading store in the Middle East. There is plenty to go around for all and sundry. Islamist terrorists of every stripe, including al Qaeda, have for months been partaking freely of the smuggled hardware.
The Egyptian authorities did not interfere when the one million Bedouin denizens of Sinai, cashing in on Libyan chaos, matured from petty smugglers to rich merchants, local warlords commanding private militias and influence.
For the past three months, the spiraling attacks on Israel which are planned and organized in the Gaza Strip aim equally at keeping Egyptian security forces based in Sinai out of their nefarious transactions.
Hisham Al-Saidni, aka Abu Walid al-Masri, head of the Gaza and Sinai Salafist faction known as Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen, was not based in Sinai where he kept most of his men. He preferred to work out of Jabaliya north of Gaza City. He counted on Hamas turning a blind eye to his doings.
By killing him in an air strike on Oct. 13, while he was riding a motorcycle in Jabaliya, Israel put its hand in an Islamist hornets’ nest reaching outside the borders of Gaza-Sinai terror and touching a nerve as far away as the Al Thani palace in Doha.
Sheikh Hamad’s visit – most probably Tuesday, Oct. 23 – aims to mark out the Gaza Strip at as an area of Qatari influence. During his brief stay, accompanied by a large entourage including his wife, he will inspect projects he has funded in the past and the new enterprises he is sponsoring, three roads, a hospital and a new town.
The Qatari emir’s overall plan is to shore up the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, after giving up on Egypt’s government as inept and not up to hauling the country out of its economic morass. He believes it is imperative for the Gaza-based Palestinian regime to gain mastery over the lawless Bedouin and Salafist terrorist groups of Sinai and, above all the arms smuggling hub in the peninsula. If they continue to run riot, Qatar’s influence in Libya will gradually ebb.
To achieve this mastery, Sheik Hamad wants to turn the Hamas Islamist terrorist organization into a disciplined elite fighting force on the Iranian Al Qods Brigades model, to serve as Qatar’s operational arm in the Gaza Strip and the strategic Sinai Peninsula.
This promises Hamas a new lease of life after the loss of its command bases, assets and positions of influence in Damascus as a result of the Syrian conflict.
The Palestinian Islamists will remain faithful to their commitment to fight the Jewish state – only now they will carry on as an instrument of Sheikh Hamad, and Israel will not only be up against the Islamists and jihadis of the Gaza Strip and Sinai, but Qatar’s legions in Libya and Syria.
As a muscle-flexing display for its new patron, Hamas is expected to redouble its attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip and Sinai.