Qatari and Turkish roles in Gaza talks coloured by regional power play

Pro and anti-Hamas states snipe at one another to gain political leverage

An Israeli mobile artillery unit firing towards the Gaza Strip yesterday. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

An Israeli mobile artillery unit firing towards the Gaza Strip yesterday. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

Qatar and Turkey continue to play a role in the search for a ceasefire in Gaza, despite yesterday’s breakdown just a few hours into what was to have been a three-day truce.

This week US secretary of state John Kerry asked Qatari foreign minister Khalid al-Attiyah to consult with Doha-based Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mishaal, who said Hamas opposed Israel’s continued deployment and operations in Gaza during any ceasefire.

Qatar and Turkey, which back Hamas, pressured the group to accept the ceasefire in spite of Israel’s demand to continue military operations in areas it occupies in Gaza.

Hamas agreed, Israel accepted. The text read “forces on the ground will remain in place” but said nothing about ongoing Israeli operations. Mr Kerry stated, however, Israel would be permitted to continue “defensive operations”.

The ceasefire collapsed when Israeli troops encountered Palestinian fighters in a tunnel in southern Gaza.

This was the second time Mr Kerry has put forward a ceasefire proposal. The initial plan, formulated after consultations with Qatar and Turkey, was rejected by Israel. It objected to a call for an end to the siege and blockade of Gaza, Hamas’s main requirement for a long-term truce.

They also called for a halt to Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing to Palestinian goods and human traffic and argued that Hamas should play a direct role in negotiations, rather than the Palestine Liberation Organisation which has accepted Hamas’s demands.

Doha and Ankara are two pro-Hamas regional capitals allowed to play a role in ceasefire talks. The third, Tehran, remains ostracised although it is believed to have supplied Hamas with funds and arms and could thus have leverage.

Divided region

The region is divided. Cairo, Riyadh and Amman wish to deny Hamas a politico-military victory by securing its terms for a truce. It is seen by them as an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a threat to the established order.

Egypt, which seeks to regain its leadership role, sees Qatar and Turkey as competitors. They, however, also vie with each other for influence.

With political ambitions fed by natural gas wealth, Qatar has long sought to assume a major role despite its small size. It faces serious opposition, however. While it is the only state to subscribe to Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Sunni Wahhabi ideology and, like Saudi, supports ultra-orthodox Salafis, the two differ sharply over the Brotherhood and the Islamic State (formerly Isis).

Qatar provides arms and funds to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State with the aim of overthrowing both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. Although Saudi Arabia shares these objectives, it sponsors other Sunni insurgent factions in Syria and Iraq and suppresses jihadi elements at home.

Doha not only provides house room for Khalid Mishaal but is also Hamas’s main financier. Al-Jazeera, Qatar’s satellite television channel, broadcasts Doha’s controversial view of unfolding developments, attracting Arab ire.

Doha’s policies are also at odds with Qatar’s hosting of the headquarters of US Central Command and close security co-operation with Washington.

Qatar’s conclusion of an $11 billion deal with US firms to provide air defence systems and attack helicopters coincided with condemnation of Israel by foreign minister Attiyah.

“Gaza faces two types of death,” he said, “Either slow death through siege and starvation, or fast death by bullets.” He said Hamas’s demands were not only “just” but also “the bare minimum for a respectable life”.

The war on Gaza has been a boon to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another western ally, whose popularity has fallen in recent months. His tough stance on Israel is gaining him votes in his country’s first ever direct presidential election on August 10th. He has accused Arab countries of doing nothing while Israel pounds Gaza and called Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi a “tyrant” because of Cairo’s suppression of the Brotherhood.

In spite of reverses suffered by the Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of the radical Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Erdogan clings to the vision of a fundamentalist-ruled region led by Turkey, a return to the Ottoman empire which collapsed a century ago. He is accused of permitting jihadi fighters and arms to transit Turkey to Syria and Iraq.

Qatar and Turkey are playing for Arab public opinion, which agrees with their condemnation of Israel’s escalating military operation in Gaza and is critical of the line adopted by Cairo, Riyadh and Amman.

The two countries challenge the legitimacy of leaders who do not stand up for Hamas, considered by many Arabs as the last vestige of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

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