Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s brief visit to Gaza on Tuesday lasted only a few hours, yet it signalled not only one more step towards the Hamas government’s exit from isolation, but also deeper power shifts in the Middle East. It was followed by salvoes of missiles fired at Israeli targets, with rare Hamas participation.
The Qatari Emir was the first head of state in Gaza in 13 years and he arrived bearing a gift: a commitment to invest £250 million in housing projects, roads and public infrastructure in the Strip. He was greeted by Hamas leaders who thanked him for “breaking Israel’s blockade” on Gaza.
Sheikh Hamad did not, in fact, break the blockade because the crossings to Gaza from Egypt have been open for nearly four years, letting through both people and goods.
Nearly all Gazans are still blocked from entering Israel and crossing to the West Bank, and Israel — along with Egypt — still enforces a closure on the sea and air routes in and out of the Strip.
The Emir’s visit, however, cemented a significant shift in Hamas’s allegiance from Iran and Syria, where its offices were located until last year, to the Sunni governments of the Persian Gulf and the new Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt.
Significantly, Sheikh Hamad is also one of the main funders of arms shipments to the rebels fighting against Hamas’s previous hosts in Damascus.
The small, oil-rich kingdom of Qatar already yields considerable power in the Middle East through its international news channel Al Jazeera. Now the Emir is playing an even more pivotal role, deepening his influence and countering the “Shia Crescent” that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
In addition to his support of Hamas, he has also allied himself closely with Egypt. In the last months of his rule, previous president, Hosni Mubarak, was furious with Qatar for stoking the revolution with live Al Jazeera broadcasts.
Hours after the Emir’s departure, Palestinian organisations launched eight rockets towards Israeli villages near Gaza, without causing casualties or damage.
In response, on Tuesday night the IAF carried out four aerial attacks, which, according to an IDF spokesman, targeted groups planning to fire more rockets on Israel. Four Palestinians were killed in the attacks including two Hamas members.
In retaliation, around 80 more rockets were fired from Gaza on Wednesday, wounding at least three workers on a kibbutz. Eight of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system.