Israel and the US are in a race against time with Gaza. The conundrum is stark: how to continue isolating the tiny coastal enclave from the outside world and from the West Bank – to sabotage any danger of a Palestinian state emerging – without stoking a mass revolt from Gaza’s two million Palestinians?
In Gaza, Israel does not have the luxury of time it enjoys in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the two additional Palestinian territories it occupies. In those areas, it can keep chipping away at the Palestinian presence, using the Israeli army, Jewish settlers and tight restrictions on Palestinian movement to take over key resources like land and water.
Gaza: A death camp
While Israel is engaged in a war of attrition with the West Bank’s population, a similar, gradualist approach in Gaza is rapidly becoming untenable. The United Nations has warned that the enclave may be only two years away from becoming “uninhabitable”, its economy in ruins and its water supplies unpotable.
More than a decade of a severe Israeli blockade as well as a series of military assaults have plunged much of Gaza into the dark ages. Israel desperately needs a solution, before Gaza’s prison turns into a death camp. And now, under cover of Donald Trump’s “ultimate peace plan”, Israel appears to be on the brink of an answer.
Recent weeks have been rife with reports in the Israeli and Arab media of moves by Washington and Israel to pressure Egypt into turning over a swath of territory in northern Sinai, next to Gaza, for infrastructure projects designed to alleviate the enclave’s “humanitarian crisis”.
Late last month Hamas, which rules Gaza, sent a delegation to Cairo to discuss the measures. This followed hot on the heels of a visit to Egypt by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law who is overseeing the Middle East peace plan.
Exploiting Egyptian fears
According to reports, Trump hopes soon to unveil a package – associated with his “deal of the century” peace-making – that will commit to the construction of a solar-power grid, desalination plant, seaport and airport in Sinai, as well as a free trade zone with five industrial areas. Most of the financing will come from the oil-rich Gulf states.
Egyptian diplomatic sources appear to have confirmed the reports. The programme has the potential to help relieve the immense suffering in Gaza, where electricity, clean water and freedom of movement are in short supply. Palestinians and Egyptians would jointly work on these projects, providing desperately needed jobs. In Gaza, youth unemployment stands at over 60 per cent.
It has been left unclear whether Palestinians from Gaza would be encouraged to live close to the Sinai projects in migrant workers’ towns. Israel will doubtless hope that Palestinian workers would gradually make Sinai their permanent home.
Egypt, meanwhile, will benefit both from the huge injection of capital in an economy currently in crisis, as well as from new infrastructure that can be used for its own population in the restive Sinai peninsula.
It is worth noting that for two years an Israeli cabinet minister has been proposing similar infrastructure projects for Gaza located on an artificial island to be established in Palestinian territorial waters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly balked at the proposal.
Locating the scheme instead in Egypt, under Cairo’s control, will tie Egyptian security concerns about Gaza to Israel’s, and serve to kill the Palestinian national cause of statehood.
A decade of arm-twisting
It is important to understand that the Sinai plan is not simply evidence of wishful thinking by an inexperienced or deluded Trump administration. All the signs are that it has enjoyed vigorous support from the Washington policy establishment for more than a decade.
In fact, four years ago, when Barack Obama was firmly ensconced in the White House, Middle East Eye charted the course of attempts by Israel and the US to arm-twist a succession of Egyptian leaders into opening Sinai to Gaza’s Palestinians.
This has been a key Israeli ambition since it pulled several thousand settlers out of Gaza in the so-called disengagement of 2005 and claimed afterwards – falsely – that the enclave’s occupation was over.
Washington has reportedly been on board since 2007, when the Islamist faction Hamas took control of Gaza, ousting the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was then that Israel, backed by the US, intensified a blockade that has destroyed Gaza’s economy and prevented key goods from entering.
A Palestinian statelet
The advantages of the Sinai plan are self-evident to Israel and the US. It would:
- make permanent the territorial division between Gaza and the West Bank, and the ideological split between the rival factions of Fatah and Hamas;
- downgrade Gaza from a diplomatic issue to a humanitarian one;
- gradually lead to the establishment of a de facto Palestinian statelet in Sinai and Gaza, mostly outside the borders of historic Palestine;
- encourage the eventual settlement of potentially millions of Palestinian refugees in Egyptian territory, stripping them of their right in international law to return to their homes, now in Israel;
- weaken the claims of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, located in the West Bank, to represent the Palestinian cause and undermine their moves to win recognition of statehood at the United Nations;
- and lift opprobrium from Israel by shifting responsibility for repressing Gaza’s Palestinians to Egypt and the wider Arab world.
‘Greater Gaza’ plan
In summer 2014, Israel’s media reported that, with Washington’s blessing, Israeli officials had been working on a plan dubbed “Greater Gaza” that would attach the enclave to a large slice of northern Sinai. The reports suggested that Israel had made headway with Cairo on the idea.
Egyptian and Palestinians officials publicly responded to the leaks by denouncing the plan as “fabricated”. But, whether Cairo was privately receptive or not, it provided yet further confirmation of a decade-long Israeli strategy in Gaza.
At around the same time, an Arab newspaper interviewed a former anonymous official close to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted in 2011. He said Egypt had come under concerted pressure from 2007 onwards to annex Gaza to northern Sinai, after Hamas took control of the enclave following Palestinian elections.
Five years later, according to the same source, Mohamed Morsi, who led a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, sent a delegation to Washington where the Americans proposed that “Egypt cede a third of the Sinai to Gaza in a two-stage process spanning four to five years”.
And since 2014, it appears, Morsi’s successor, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, has faced similar lobbying.
Carrots and sticks
Suspicions that Sisi might have been close to capitulating four years ago were fuelled at that time by Abbas himself. In an interview on Egyptian TV, he said Israel’s Sinai plan had been “unfortunately accepted by some here [in Egypt]. Don’t ask me more about that. We abolished it.”
Israel’s neoconservative cheerleaders in Washington who reportedly leant on Mubarak in 2007, during George W Bush’s presidency, are now influencing Middle East policy again in the Trump administration.
And although Sisi appears to have stood his ground in 2014, subsequent dramatic changes in the region are likely to have weakened his hand.
Both Abbas and Hamas are more isolated than ever, and the situation in Gaza more desperate. Israel has cultivated much closer ties to the Gulf states as they fashion joint opposition to Iran. And the Trump administration has dropped even the pretence of neutrality in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In fact, Trump’s Middle East team led by Kushner adopted from the outset Israel’s so-called “outside-in” paradigm for arriving at a peace agreement.
The idea is to use a carrot-and-stick approach – a mix of financial inducements and punitive sanctions – to bully Abbas and Hamas into making yet more major concessions to Israel that would void any meaningful moves towards Palestinian statehood. Key to this idea is that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can be recruited to help Israel in its efforts to force the Palestinian leadership’s hand.
Egypt, current reports indicate, has come under similar pressure from the Gulf to concede territory in Sinai to help Trump with his long-delayed “deal of the century”.
Muslim Brotherhood threat
Sisi and his generals have good reason to be reluctant to help. After they grabbed power from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, they have done everything possible to crush homegrown Islamist movements, but have faced a backlash in Sinai.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, is the sister organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s generals have worried that opening the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza could bolster Islamist attacks that Egypt has struggled to contain. There are fears too in Cairo that the Sinai option would shift the burden of Gaza onto Egypt’s shoulders.
This is where Trump and Kushner may hope their skills at wheeler-dealing can achieve a breakthrough.
Egypt’s susceptibility to financial inducements from the Gulf were on display last year when Sisi’s government agreed effectively to sell off to Saudi Arabia two strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. They guard the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez canal.
In return, Egypt received billions of dollars in loans and investments from the kingdom, including large-scale infrastructure projects in Sinai. Israel reportedly approved the deal.
Analysts have suggested that the handover of the islands to Saudi Arabia was intended to strengthen security and intelligence cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in dealing with Islamic militants in Sinai.
This now looks suspiciously like the prelude to Trump’s reported Sinai plan.
Over the Palestinians’ heads
In March, the White House hosted 19 countries in a conference to consider new ideas for dealing with Gaza’s mounting crisis. As well as Israel, participants included representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The Palestinians boycotted the meeting.
Much favoured by the Trump team was a paper delivered by Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli general and key official overseeing Israel’s strategy in the occupied territories. Many of his proposals – for a free trade zone and infrastructure projects in Sinai – are now being advanced.
Last month Kushner visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan to drum up support. According to interviews in the Israel Hayom daily, all four Arab states are on board with the peace plan, even if it means bypassing Abbas.
Jackie Khoury, a Palestinian analyst for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, summed up the plan’s Gaza elements: “Egypt, which has a vital interest in calming Gaza down because of the territory’s impact on Sinai, will play the policeman who restrains Hamas. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and perhaps the United Arab Emirates will pay for the projects, which will be under United Nations auspices.”
Israel’s efforts to secure compliance from Hamas may be indicated by recent threats to invade Gaza and dissect it in two, reported through veteran Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai. The US has also moved to deepen the crisis in Gaza by withholding payments to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. A majority of Gaza’s population are refugees dependent on UN handouts.
An advantage for Hamas in agreeing to the Sinai plan is that it would finally be freed of Israeli and Palestinian Authority controls over Gaza. It would be in a better able to sustain its rule, as long as it did not provoke Egyptian ire.
Oslo’s pacification model
Israel and Washington’s plans for Gaza have strong echoes of the “economic pacification” model that was the framework for the Oslo peace process of the late 1990s.
For Israel, Oslo represented a cynical chance to destroy the largely rural economy of the West Bank that Palestinians have depended on for centuries. Israel has long coveted the territory both for its economic potential and its Biblical associations.
Hundreds of Palestinian communities in the West Bank rely on these lands for agriculture, rooting them to historic locations through economic need and tradition. But uprooting the villagers – forcing them into a handful of Palestinian cities, and clearing the land for Jewish settlers – required an alternative economic model.
As part of the the Oslo process, Israel began establishing a series of industrial areas – paid for by international donors – on the so-called “seam zone” between Israel and the West Bank.
Israeli and international companies were to open factories there, employing cheap Palestinian labour with minimal safeguards. Palestinians would be transformed from farmers with a strong attachment to their lands into a casual labour force concentrated in the cities.
An additional advantage for Israel was that it would make the Palestinians the ultimate “precariat”. Should they start demanding a state or even protest for rights, Israel could simply block entry to the industrial areas, allowing hunger to pacify the population.
New prison wardens
There is every reason to believe that is now the goal of an Israeli-Trump initiative to gradually relocate Palestinians to Sinai through investment in infrastructure projects.
With the two countries’ security interests safely aligned, Israel can then rely on Egypt to pacify the Palestinians of Gaza on its behalf. Under such a scheme, Cairo will have many ways to teach its new workforce of migrant labourers a lesson.
It can temporarily shut down the infrastructure projects, laying off the workforce, until there is quiet. It can close off the sole Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai. It can shutter the electricity and desalination plants, depriving Gaza of power and clean water.
This way Gaza can be kept under Israel’s thumb without Israel sharing any blame. Egypt will become Gaza’s visible prison wardens, just as Abbas and his Palestinian Authority have shouldered the burden of serving as jailers in much of the West Bank.
This is Israel’s model for Gaza. We may soon find out whether it is shared by Egypt and the Gulf states.
• First published in Middle East Eye
Do you think it is that simple to travel around the Middle East? Think twice!
Ask Palestinians, about trying to get from a point A to a point B in their own nation.
Some time ago, sitting in an old Ottoman hotel in Bethlehem, I asked a waiter what it takes to travel from there to Gaza, where he said, several of his relatives were living. He looked at me as if I had fallen from the Moon:
There is no way I could travel there. If my relatives get very sick or die, then, in theory, I could apply for an Israeli travel permit to go there, but there is absolutely no guarantee that they would approve, or that I could get to Gaza on time…
I tried to appear naïve: “And what if someone from an Arab country which does not recognize Israel, wants to come here, to Bethlehem? Like, a Lebanese pilgrim or just a tourist? Could he or she enter from Jordan?”
The waiter weighed for a while whether to reply at all, but then had mercy on me:
West Bank… You know, it only appears on the maps as some sort of autonomous or independent territory. In reality, the borders and movement of the people have been fully controlled by the Israelis.
My friend, a legendary left-wing Israeli human rights lawyer and a staunch Palestinian independence supporter, Linda Brayer, downed another cup of coffee and made several cynical remarks. She was actually illegally ‘smuggled’ by me into Bethlehem. As an Israeli citizen, she was not allowed to enter the West Bank at all, but since I was driving and she was with me, a foreigner, and on top of it she wore a headscarf (she converted to Islam several years earlier), the Israeli soldiers just let us pass without askin too many uncomfortable questions.
Bizarre, disgusting, and even mind-blowing? Not for us who live or operate in this part of the world! All this is by now considered as “business as usual”.
During the last Intifada, I hired a taxi in Jerusalem to the border with Gaza driven by a Russian-Israeli Jew, a student, who literally clashed with a border guard, demanding to be allowed to enter Gaza, in order to “see what my fxxxxing government is doing to the Palestinian people.”
They did not let him into Gaza. They detained him. As a foreigner, I entered. During my work in Gaza, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired at my hired car. It missed… But at least I was allowed to enter and work in Gaza. It is like Russian roulette: sometimes you get in, sometimes you don’t, and no explanations are given.
That was the time when the new Gaza International Airport had just opened. After few days of fighting, the runway was bombed by the Israelis, all flights cancelled, and I had to, eventually make my way out through Egyptian Sinai.
Later, I also witnessed how brutal the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights has been; how it has divided countless families and communities. People are forced to shout at each other through the Israeli barbed-wire electric fences. The only way for the families to reunite, at least for a day or two, was to somehow get to Jordan.
The Syrian Golan Heights used to be famous for its delicious apples and ancient Druze community. It used to attract travelers from all over the world. Now it is occupied by Israel, and it is de-populated and monstrously militarized.
You want to travel there? You cannot; not anymore. It is off limits.
For years and decades, this insanity of travel bans and restrictions, as well as barbed wire and watch towers, has been applying mainly (although not exclusively) to the territories occupied by Israel. However, now almost the entire Middle East is divided by conflicts, insane regulations and travel prohibitions.
Unless you are a war correspondent, a Western ‘advisor’, an intelligence agent or a ‘development worker’, don’t even think about going to Iraq. Almost like Afghanistan and Libya, Iraq had been thoroughly wrecked by the Western coalition and its allies. On top of it, to get visa there is now close to impossible. In the recent past, the Westerners flooded Erbil and its surroundings; the main city of what was called, unofficially, ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’. The place used to be governed by the independence-seeking and shamelessly pro-Western ‘elites’, and it used to have its own visa regime. Now even this area is more or less off limits to foreigners.
Syria is still a war zone, although its government, which is supported by the majority of the Syrian people, is clearly winning the brutal conflict ignited and fueled by the West and its ‘client’ states.
Syria used to be one of the safest, the most educated and advanced countries in the region, built on solid socialist principles. It used to have an impressive scientific base, as well as dozens of world-class tourist attractions. Therefore, applying Western imperialist logic, it had to be first smeared, and then attacked and destroyed.
Logically, Syria is not issuing tourist visas to the citizens of the countries that are trying to destroy it.
Next door, Lebanon is still suffering from the flood of refugees, from geographical isolation and from the various dormant and semi-active terrorist cells.
Travelling from Lebanon to Syria is now almost impossible, or at least very dangerous and difficult. Lebanese citizens can still enter, but ‘at their own risk’.
In the not so distant past, people used to drive from Beirut to Europe and vice-versa, via Turkey and Syria. Now this option is just a sweet memory. But then again, in the very distant past, I am often reminded, it was not unusual for the Lebanese middle class to spend a weekend in Haifa, driving their own cars. Now the border between Lebanon and Israel is hermetically sealed. Both countries are technically at war. The U.N. patrols the so-called Blue Line. Apart from drones and Israeli war planes en-route to bombing Syria, nothing can cross.
All along the Turkish-Syrian border, both sides are suffering. Of course, the Syrian people are suffering much more, being victims of the direct Turkish military adventures. But also Turks are now paying a very high price for the war: they are suffering from terrorist attacks, as well as from the total collapse of trade between the two countries. Many villages around Hatay and Gaziantep are quickly turning into ghost towns.
For instance, cities like Adana in Turkey and Aleppo in Syria used to be connected by motorways, enjoying constant flows of people from both ends. There was bustling trade, as well as tourism, and social visits. Now, Ankara has been building an enormous concrete wall between the two countries. No traffic can pass through the border, except Turkish military convoys.
For years and decades, it has been impossible to enter Saudi Arabia as a tourist. This fundamentalist Wahabbi ‘client’ state of the West simply does not recognize the existence of tourism, or leisure travel. To enter the KSA, it has to be either for business or religious pilgrimage.
With its huge territory, the KSA effectively divides the entire Gulf region, when it comes to transportation and the movement of people. There are some loopholes, and ‘transit visas’ can be obtained (with some luck, difficulties and expense), for instance, for those people driving their own vehicles or taking a bus from Jordan to Bahrain, or to Oman.
Traveling to culturally the most exciting country in the Gulf – Yemen – is now absolutely impossible. Yemen used to be one of the jewels of historic architecture and civilization, counting such cities as Sanaa, Zabid and Shiban. Now the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is occupying the city of Aden and the coast, while Saudi forces are brutally bombing the rest of the country, which is controlled by the rebels.
Then, there is a bizarre conflict which is brewing between Qatar (the richest country in the Gulf with the substantial U.S. military presence as well as huge local business-controlled media conglomerate Al-Jazeera), and several other Arab allies of the West, including Saudi Arabia. Borders are presently closed and insults are flying. There is the growing possibility of a military confrontation. Qatar is being accused, cynically, of ‘supporting terrorism’, as if the KSA was not doing precisely the same.
Flying around the region has become a Kafkaesque experience.
All Middle Eastern and Gulf airlines are avoiding Israel. Some fly over Syria but most of them, don’t. The once mighty and now deteriorating Qatar Airways is clearly forbidden to enter the airspace of Saudi Arabia as well as of the United Arab Emirates.
Recently I travelled with Qatar from Beirut to Nairobi, Kenya. It used to be a simple, comfortable commute, which has recently turned into a terrible nightmare. Unable to fly over Syrian and Saudi airspace, a plane has to first fly in totally the opposite direction, northwest, over Turkish airspace, then over Iran, making a huge, almost 90 minutes detour. On the second leg, a trip of less than 4 hours now takes more than 5 hours and 30 minutes! The plane flies directly away from Africa, towards Iran, and then makes a huge loop, avoiding both the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Lebanese MEA (Middle Eastern Airlines) is one of the few airlines that ignores all this, flying directly over Syria, and towards the Gulf states. Most of the others don’t dare. But MEA has to avoid Israeli airspace, making often interesting final approaches to Rafik Hariri Int’l Airport.
The exception is Turkish Airlines which basically flies over everything and into everywhere, including Israel itself.
This essay is not only about the politics and what has led to the present situation, although it is clear that we are talking here, above all, about the neo-colonialist arrangement of the world.
Political nightmare unleashed by the ‘traditional’ Western colonialist powers and their ‘client states’, has led to the geographical divisions; to a perverse state of affairs in this part of the world. Increasingly, the people are losing control over their own nations and the entire region. They have already lost the ability to move about freely through it.
Of course, something similar exists in many other places, including the South Pacific. There, I described the situation in my book Oceania. An entire huge part of the world has been literally cut to pieces by the neo-colonialist powers and their geo-political interests and designs: the U.S., France, Australia and New Zealand have plainly overrun and shackled Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. A once proud and unique part of the world has been fragmented internally: people are brutally separated and forced to depend almost exclusively on the West.
In the Middle East, divisions, walls and barbed wire, are now everywhere; they are visible to the naked eye, but they are also ‘inside’ peoples’ minds, damaging the human psyche, making dreams of unity and a common future look very unlikely, and sometimes even impossible.
This used to be one of the cradles of our civilization – a deep, sane and stunningly beautiful part of the world. Now everything is fragmented. The West rules, mainly through its ‘client’ states, such as Israel, the KSA and Turkey. It controls everything. It governs almost the entire Middle East; nothing moves without its knowledge and permission.
Yes, nothing and no one moves here, unless it suits the West. We don’t read about it often. It is not discussed. But that is how it is. This bizarre concept of ‘freedom’ implanted from the outside. The rulers who were injected into the Gulf and various other occupied nations. The result is horrid: the electric wires, walls and travel restrictions everywhere; the old pathological British ‘divide and rule’ concept.
As I am working on this essay, my plane which is supposed to be flying south-west, is actually hovering north-east, in order to avoid the airspaces of the various so-called hostile states.
Local people may be getting used to the fact that their part of the world has already been ‘re-arranged’. Or perhaps they have already stopped noticing.
The computer, however, keeps showing the absurd flying path of the airliner. Computers can be programmed and re-programmed, but they cannot be indoctrinated. Without judging, they are simply demonstrating the absurdity that is unrolling around them, on their screens.
• First published in New Eastern Outlook
• All photos by Andre Vltchek
Five months after the diplomatic spat between the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet and Qatar kicked-off, the ante is being upped. Bahrain, one of the quartet alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, has called for Qatar to be frozen out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As the council starts to unravel, what will this mean for Qatar and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region?
The Bahraini proposal, which would have been coordinated with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, to lock Qatar out of the GCC is a logical move in the nearly six-month long siege, with the next potential step the removal of Qatar from the Council altogether.
This unprecedented inter-GCC crisis has led to the biggest divisions within the Council – which consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – since it was formed in 1981.
Qatar leaving the Gulf monarchical club would seriously loosen the threads that bind the GCC together, as the original idea of the Council was proposed by Saudi Arabia as a security pact to make sure any challenges to their respective thrones were quashed. Ironically it was the threat of Islamic extremism that prompted the creation of the GCC, and it is the Anti-Terror Quarter (ATQ) accusing Qatar of funding terrorist groups that is driving the GCC apart.
The spur to form the GCC was the siege of Mecca by radical Saudi Islamists in November 1979. It shook the kingdom to its core for two weeks and nearly lost the Saudis the much coveted, and much abused, title of the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. To deal with the domestic threat, Riyadh encouraged Islamists to go and fight with the Afghan mujahideen following the Soviet invasion in December 1979. We all know how that ended: Al Qaeda and its offshoots, 9/11, and blowback for the Middle East and much of the world.
Internal power jockeying among royal family members aside (for instance the Qatari Emir’s father, Hamad, deposed his father, as did Oman’s Sultan Qaboos), the only time the GCC has acted in each other’s defence was not the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, but the Bahraini uprising in 2011.
Bahrain’s rulers, the Khalifas, might have been dethroned by the mass unrest – the royal family is Sunni, which accounts for around 20% of the population, the remainder Shia – without GCC military intervention.
It was a brutal and blatant example of how far the GCC will go to ensure its self-preservation. At the same time it brought Bahrain even more into the Saudi camp amid the inter-GCC rivalry to be the leader of the Council.
Traditionally it has been Abu Dhabi and Riyadh jockeying for top position, evidenced in neither capital willing to capitulate to the other over the proposed location of a GCC Central Bank when a Gulf Common Market (GCM) was being mooted in 2008.
But the Arab Spring brought the two closer together in the face of a common enemy: populist uprisings. The relationship has been further cemented by the close ties of the young bucks Mohamad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamad bin Zayed.
Qatar, however, did not follow the GCC line, reflecting its assertive foreign policy over the previous decade to steer its own course. This culminated in the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors from Qatar in March 2014 (they did not return until November 2014).
Tensions were ironed out yet not fully resolved, which pointed out some crucial problems within the GCC itself: no framework governing relationships between members, no mechanisms to resolve member disputes, and no GCC court or framework to follow up and back GCC resolutions.
In addition to the lack of such frameworks, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi lacked any leverage over Qatar. With Qatar having a small populace of 350,000 and one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, Riyadh cannot use cheque book diplomacy as it did with the UAE’s Sharjah in the 1970s, when the penniless emirate was bailed out by Riyadh in return for a greater say in Sharjah’s internal policies, which extended to banning alcohol.
Neither is an uprising in Qatar likely due to its citizens’ wealth, but also the lack of different sects with any grievances that could be externally exploited – the majority are Sunni, of the Wahhabi school, the same as Saudi Arabia – although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have tried to capitalise this year on tribal divisions to overthrow the Emir. Saudi and the Emirates instead had to resort to infowars to try and bring Qatar to heel.
The Gulf crisis was sparked in May (2017) by the UAE government hacking Qatari government news and social media sites to plant false statements by the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The most damning false statement was that the Emir respected the Iranian government – the arch nemesis of the Sunni Gulf monarchies, especially Riyadh. After all, a second core reason for the GCC’s creation was the Iranian revolution, and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.
News of the UAE’s hack only came out in July, weeks after the ATQ had cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar. The ATQ’s top accusation? Qatar was financing terrorism, sailing too close to the wind with Iran, and pursuing too independent a foreign policy for the ATQ’s liking.
The ATQ, which includes GCC outsider Egypt, has used all the means at its disposal bar military action to try to isolate Qatar. Kuwait has been acting as a moderator between the two sides, while the Sultanate of Oman is trying to sit on the fence. The Sultanate, however, is on good terms with Tehran, and has allowed Qatari planes and ships through its territories to circumnavigate the UAE’s blockade of its territorial waters and airspace. Muscat is effectively distancing itself from the Saudi-UAE dominated GCC.
The split has pushed Qatar further into the arms of the Turks, with whom they have a military pact, and the Iranians; both countries are now major providers of food and other goods to Qatar. Turkey is a crucial ally as it is pro-Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab moderate Islamic party; President Erdogan’s AKP party has championed the Brotherhood while Qatar has allowed both the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate, Palestine’s Hamas, to operate out of Doha, much to the ATQ’s chagrin.
The Gulf monarchies have long opposed populist Islamic parties – if they could not have some sway over them – fearing any threat to autocratic rule by organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood that have broad appeal with moderate and middle-class Muslims. Hence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when it came to power in the wake of the 2011 uprising, and supported the 2013 coup by the Egyptian military, which has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, locked up some 60,000 political prisoners, and imprisoned the former president, Mohamad Morsi.
The ATQ have followed Cairo’s lead by designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. It has not stopped there. The UAE has listed 82 organisations it deems terrorists, while the ATQ has published a list of 30 organisations it wants Qatar to expel and stop funding.
With Qatar being a host for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and, for a spell, the Taliban, they have joined as an outlying member the “Axis of Resistance”, a term spawned following George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, to denote the anti-Israeli and anti-US alliance between Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The analogy is not quite right, though, in that Qatar opposed the Syrian regime, gets on with Washington, and is not ideologically nor theologically on the side of Shia Iran or Hizbullah. Instead we have a new, loosely linked axis comprised of Qatar, Iran and Turkey that opposes the Saudi-UAE led GCC. It is no longer an ascendant Shia Crescent pitted against the Sunni Arab states as Jordan’s King Abdallah warned of back in 2004, but a more diverse bloc.
What is clear is that a major cleavage has occurred in the MENA, and that there is no turning back by the ATQ or Qatar to resolve the GCC crisis; there has been too much water under the proverbial bridge between the two camps, and the infowar has been both harsh and personal.
The ATQ’s blockade strategy has not worked, as following the 2014 diplomatic spat Qatar prepared contingency plans to weather a potential siege, which the ATQ was seemingly unaware of. The crisis has also caused the Qataris to rally around the flag.
The ATQ is now trying to strip Qatar of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and has compiled dossiers about Doha’s terrorist financing, although it has not released its ‘black book’ over fears Doha will expose the ATQ’s, especially Saudi Arabia’s, involvement with questionable groups (a case of the kettle calling the pot black) despite Mohamad bin Salman’s public statements to “return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam”.
At present, the ATQ is running out of other options other than a complete divorce if the crisis continues. The step after a Qatar GCC exit, a ‘Qatexit’? Saudi intervention according to analysts, especially if Mohamad bin Salman’s reform plans and Vision 2030 to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons does not pan out, and the kingdom becomes increasingly cash-strapped due to low oil prices.
Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor at Washington D.C.-based consultancy Gulf State Analytics, posits that Qatar could be brought under Saudi’s umbrella by force to seize the country’s huge gas reserves, the third largest in the world. It could be a Crimea-type scenario.
Who knows, black swan events do occur, and the global powers would vocally oppose such a move but likely not exercise military intervention a la 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US troops based in Qatar would just stay in their base; the Trump administration has signalled it has sided with Riyadh, even though the State Department has been more nuanced towards Doha. As for the Turks and the Iranians, they would not want to be brought into a conflagration with Riyadh and the ATQ. That really would tear the MENA apart.
Ultimately, there’s not much to stop a Saudi gas grab. There’s not much desire internationally for yet another Middle Eastern military ‘adventure’ following the debacles in Iraq and Libya, while nobody’s lifted a finger against Saudi Arabia for its war against Yemen. As long as Qatari gas exports remain uninterrupted, the global powers might readily accept a change of management.
That said, such a Saudi move may be far-fetched, but a new GCC without Qatar seems increasingly likely.
Hamas’s offer to submit to a long-delayed reconciliation process with its Fatah rivals signals that the balance of regional forces may be tipping in its favour and against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, analysts say.
Officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, are due in Gaza on Monday, for the first time in three years, to test Hamas’s commitment to establishing a unity government.
The first weekly government meeting is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, with an Egyptian delegation overseeing the proceedings.
Hopes are that reconciliation will end a decade of bitter feuding between Hamas and Fatah – and a parallel entrenchment of territorial divisions between Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
Most analysts expect the reconciliation process to fail, as previous attempts have. The biggest stumbling block is likely to be over long-promised elections. Polls suggest that Hamas would win in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Nonetheless, the move is being hailed by PA officials as a victory for Abbas, Fatah’s leader, after he imposed harsh sanctions on Gaza over the summer to punish Hamas for setting up what was viewed as a shadow government there.
Abbas more alone than ever
Abbas’s measures have included cutting electricity to a few hours a day and slashing the salaries of thousands of government workers.
But experts argue that the move towards reconciliation initiated by Hamas puts it – not Abbas – in the driving seat, by helping it find a way out of its regional isolation.
Abbas, by contrast, appears more alone than ever, with no tangible support for his diplomatic campaign for Palestinian statehood from Israel, the US administration or the Gulf states.
“The severity of the measures against Hamas have in a sense backfired on Abbas,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think-tank.
“[The sanctions] frightened everyone by deepening the humanitarian crisis and accelerating the gradual march towards renewed escalation between Israel and Hamas. Egypt had no choice but to react to try forestall another war.”
Thrall said the unpredictable consequences of such hostilities could include Gaza’s Palestinians storming the Rafah crossing into Egypt, or accusations from across the Arab world of Egyptian complicity with Israel.
Cairo has responded in part by easing conditions in Gaza, noted Thrall. It has been supplying fuel to the enclave – with Israel’s quiet approval – in defiance of Abbas’s sanctions.
But Cairo has also appeared ready to give Hamas the leeway necessary to cultivate a range of strategic ties across the region.
Egypt, Hamas have ‘shared interests’
After Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in Egypt in 2013, he sealed off Gaza’s one border with Sinai, effectively joining Israel’s blockade. He justified his tough stance by accusing Hamas of aiding fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Sinai and conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s own Islamic movement, to subvert his rule.
Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, and an expert on Israeli-Egyptian relations, said Hamas had been gradually winning Sisi’s confidence.
“The politicisation of Hamas has been gaining momentum since it took part in, and won, the 2006 [Palestinian national] elections,” he told Al Jazeera.
He pointed out that Hamas’s revised charter, published in May, had opened the door to further cooperation with Cairo by effectively renouncing the group’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Egypt and Hamas have shared interests. Hamas can limit the influence of ISIL in Gaza and ensure [Gaza’s existing ISIL] supporters cannot connect with ISIS in Sinai. In return, Egypt can open the Rafah crossing and break Israel’s closure.”
Egypt’s biggest concession, however, may have been its tacit consent for Hamas to strengthen its ties to other regional actors, putting Abbas further on the back foot.
Thrall noted that, despite Egypt’s oversight of the reconciliation process, Hamas was also renewing its ties to Iran and Syria. Hamas soured relations with both by backing the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when the country’s civil war erupted in 2011.
The loss of Damascus as a base has been keenly felt ever since. A Shia axis of Iran, Syria and the Lebanese faction Hezbollah had supplied Hamas with training, weapons and intelligence information.
In a sign of Hamas’s commitment to mending fences, a senior Hamas delegation visited Tehran in August.
Afterwards, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, said the relationship was “returning to what it was in the old days”, adding that Iran was helping with “money and arms”.
It is possible that Hamas’s overtures to Iran and Syria are in part designed to raise the stakes for Egypt, which along with a Saudi-led group of Gulf states, is bitterly opposed to increased Iranian and Shia influence in the region.
“Hamas does not want to have to choose,” Thrall told Al Jazeera. “It wants Egypt and the Gulf’s diplomatic support, but it knows that Iran will offer military backing in a way the Sunni states won’t.”
Another indication that Hamas is likely to emerge from the reconciliation process strengthened – whether moves towards unity succeed or fail – is the group’s increasingly close ties to exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.
Dahlan, who is living in the United Arab Emirates, has been seeking a way to get back into the occupied Palestinian territories to challenge Abbas’s leadership, said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“If Dahlan wants to be a player, he can’t remain in exile. He has to come back and portray Abbas as the obstacle – to reconciliation, to solving Gaza’s problems and to developing a proper liberation strategy,” she told Al Jazeera.
Thrall observed that Egypt wanted a twin-track reconciliation – between Hamas and Fatah, and within Fatah, between Abbas and critics such as Dahlan.
But in practice, said Buttu, Egypt has prioritised unity between Hamas and Dahlan, as well as Fatah critics of Abbas. “They have been given a chance to form a common front against Abbas’s rule, to become allies,” she said.
Egypt, along with the Saudi-led Gulf states, she noted, has grown increasingly exasperated by Abbas’s failure to anoint a successor, hold elections and promote a new generation of reformers. Instead, they have helped Dahlan to create a power base in Gaza, allowing him to channel money into the enclave from the UAE.
Dahlan srengthens ties
Dahlan stepped up his efforts last month by launching his own Fatah-Hamas reconciliation programme, distributing $50,000 apiece to families whose loved ones were killed or injured in the clashes in 2007 that removed Fatah from Gaza. The compensation was designed to win him new allies in Hamas and Fatah’s most powerful families.
In late June, Zvi Barel, a leading analyst with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reported that Egypt, the UAE and Israel were seeking to persuade Hamas to agree to install Dahlan as prime minister of what would effectively become a “state of Gaza”. Dahlan’s loyalists would be in charge of the Rafah crossing into Sinai, and the UAE would finance a power plant.
Dahlan is reported to have ties to both Israel and the United States, as well as Egypt and the UAE, which reportedly view him as the main candidate to succeed Abbas.
According to the Haaretz report, Egypt, the UAE and Israel see Dahlan’s influence in Gaza as a way to weaken Abbas and “neutralise” the roles of Turkey and Qatar. Doha has been helping to finance the enclave’s reconstruction after a devastating military attack by Israel in 2014.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been leading a campaign against Qatar over the summer, accusing it of sponsoring “terror” in the region and being too close to Iran.
Last week, Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel observed that “the UAE is trying to push [Qatar] out of Gaza by spending its own money there”, channelled through Dahlan.
Abbas in the corner
Meanwhile, said Klein, the accommodation between Hamas and Dahlan had freed “Hamas to enlarge its relations with the region. It can build ties to Egypt, UAE and maybe the Saudis – so far they have kept silent. If Hamas can move closer to Egypt, that will calm Saudi concerns.”
As a result, he added, “Abbas has been pushed into the corner.”
Klein said Hamas wanted to extend its rule from Gaza to the West Bank. “Then it can negotiate a long-term interim agreement with Israel – a truce – based on the 1967 borders. It needs Egypt’s help because Egypt can advocate to Europe and the US on its behalf.”
According to Klein, Abbas is now exposed. “He has no Plan B if his diplomatic process for statehood fails. He depends exclusively on US support, and Donald Trump is now in charge. The US president isn’t even ready to cooperate with Europe on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
During his trip to New York for the UN General Assembly last month, Sisi met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reiterate the pressing need for a peace accord.
But Egypt knows no serious pressure can be exerted on Israel for talks unless Hamas and Fatah reconcile. Netanyahu would prefer to keep the focus on Iran rather than the Palestinians, using Abbas’s domestic weakness as a pretext for inaction.
Buttu observed that Israel’s overriding priority was to foil reconciliation and maintain the territorial split between Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
The only capital Israel could extract from unity, she said, would be to discredit Abbas for colluding with “terrorists” and thereby bolster the case that the international community should block funding to the PA – as happened after the last Palestinian elections in 2006, which Hamas won.
“In that situation, the PA will have to focus all its energies on survival and raising money rather than developing a strategy of resistance,” she said.
Buttu added that reconciliation was unlikely to succeed as long there was little collective pressure for it from the Arab world.
“The Arab states are focused on their own narrow interests rather than acting as the champions of the Palestinian cause, as they once did. Their approach now is that the Palestinians should be left to resolve their differences with Israel alone. That deep isolation has left the Palestinian national movement in disarray.”
• First published in Al Jazeera
Last week a Trump administration official decided to inform the news media that the CIA program to arm and train anti-Assad Syrian forces had been terminated. It was welcome news amid a deepening U.S. military commitment reflecting the intention to remain in the country for years to come. As my recent article in TAC documented, the net result of the program since late 2011 has been to provide arms to al Qaeda terrorists and their jihadist and other extremist allies, which had rapidly come to dominate the military effort against the Assad regime.
The Trump administration’s decision to acknowledge explicitly its decision to end the program invites a more systematic analysis of why and how such a program, which was so clearly undermining a fundamental U.S. national-security interest, could have gotten started and continue for so long. The preliminary version of the program that began in late 2011 is easier to explain than its more direct form two years later, which had continued (at least formally) until now.
One of the keys to understanding its origins is that the program was launched not because of a threat to U.S. security, but because of a perceived opportunity. That is always a danger sign, prompting powerful national-security bureaucrats to begin thinking about a “win” for the United States. (Think Vietnam and Iraq.)
The opportunity in this case was the rise of opposition protests against the Assad regime in spring 2011 and the belief among national security officials that Assad could not survive. The national-security team saw a shortcut to the goal. Former Obama administration official Derek Chollet recalled in his book The Long Game that Obama’s advisers were all talking about a “managed transition” and urging Obama to publicly demand that Assad step down, according to Chollet. What that meant to Obama’s advisers was bringing pressure from outside, including providing arms to the opposition.
That was wishful thinking not only in regard to the willingness of an Alawite-dominated regime to hand over power to its sectarian foes, but in regard to the assumed Iranian willingness to go along with toppling the regime. Not one of Obama’s advisers had sufficient understanding of regional dynamics to warn the President that Iran would not allow their Syrian ally to be overthrown by an opposition supported by Sunni states and the United States.
But the decisive factor in pushing the administration toward action was the pressure from U.S. Sunni allies in the region—Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—which began in autumn 2011 to press Obama to help build and equip an opposition army. Turkey was the leader in this regard, calling for Washington to agree to provide heavy weaponry—including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles—to the rebel troops that didn’t even exist yet, and even offering to invade Syria to overthrow the regime if the U.S. would guarantee air cover.
In the ideology of the national security elite—especially its Democratic wing—regional alliances are essential building blocks of what is styled as the U.S.-sponsored global “rules-based order.” In practice, however, they have served as instruments for the advancement of the power and prestige of the national security bureaucracies themselves. The payoffs of U.S. alliances in the Middle East have centered on the military bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that allow the Pentagon and the military brass to plan and execute military operations that guarantee extraordinary levels of military spending. But enormous Saudi arms purchases and the financing of any covert operations the CIA doesn’t wish to acknowledge to Congress have long been prime benefits for those powerful organizations and their senior officials.
Then CIA Director David Petraeus was particularly interested in ginning up a covert operation to arm and train the Syrian opposition. With the security bureaucracies supporting the allies’ desire to unseat Assad, Hillary Clinton, whose sympathies and political strategy always lay with the war, eagerly took the lead to take the lead in the administration on arming the rebels and calling for a “no fly zone,” which the Turks badly wanted.
Despite this set of interrelated factors pulling the administration toward a policy of regime change, Obama said no to heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and an official U.S. role in arms supply. What he did agree to, however, was a covert CIA operation designed by Petraeus to load weapons from Libyan government stocks in Benghazi on ships and arrange for them to be shipped to the war zone. It was Obama’s way of placating all of the actors pushing for an aggressive policy of regime change in Syria without being publicly committed to regime change.
That program, which began in October 2011, was halted abruptly by the attack on the embassy annex in September 2012. But by that time the Obama administration already knew that the weapons were falling into the hands of al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise al Nusra Front, as administration official revealed to the New York Times. Meanwhile the Saudis, Turks and Qataris were pushing arms to groups with military arrangements with al Qaeda’s al Nusra Front at a feverish pace, and the Saudis had begun making deals in Eastern Europe for the heavy weapons, clearly intending to equip a large conventional army.
The danger signals of a policy gone horribly wrong could hardly have been clearer. But at that moment in the summer and fall of 2012, Clinton and Petraeus began a new push for the CIA taking on the role of arming its own hand-picked “moderate” groups. Clinton argued in a White House meeting that the United States needed to have “skin in the game” in order to persuade its Sunni allies to steer weapons away from the terrorists.
But Obama fended off that proposal, citing the blowback from the U.S. Afghanistan adventure. While the debate continued in late 2012 and early 2013, the CIA did a series of studies—evidently ordered by the White House—of past efforts to build up insurgent armies from scratch. The conclusions were not encouraging, as someone defending Obama’s position in the debate leaked to the Times.
But then in early December 2012, Obama made a fatal political error: He introduced a “red line”—the use of a chemical weapon in Syria. Sure enough, within weeks the first rebel allegation of a regime sarin attack was made in Homs. And although the Obama administration quickly investigated and found that it involved tear gas, it was soon followed by a series of new claims of regime chemical attacks in March and April 2013, in which the evidence was very murky at best.
Of course, Obama’s national security team, in concert with the Sunni allies, pounced on the opportunity to push even harder for a new U.S. program of direct military aid to the “moderates.” Obama sought to avoid being sucked deeper into the Syria conflict; the administration even got the intelligence community to issue an unusually inconclusive intelligence finding on the alleged chemical weapons attacks in late April.
But for a second time, Obama also agreed to a CIA program of helping to arm the anti-Assad forces; it was a way of placating his own national security apparatus and U.S. allies while avoiding an open commitment to the war. And when nothing happened in the secret program for weeks, Obama’s national security team used an alleged crisis in the war to tighten the pressure on him to move more decisively. Secretary of State John Kerry and unhappy CIA officials arranged for a rebel commander to call into a White House meeting with the claim that Syrian and Hezbollah forces were threatening to bring about the collapse of the entire anti-Assad war.
Kerry warned that Obama would be blamed by U.S. allies for the outcome and proposed missile strikes on Assad’s forces. Within days, the White House ordered a new intelligence assessment that expressed “high confidence” that the Syrian regime had used sarin repeatedly and immediately made its conclusion public. And simultaneously the White House announced publicly for the first time that the U.S. would provide direct assistance to the opposition and leaked it to the Timesthat it would involve military assistance.
So at the very moment when Washington should have been exerting pressure on its allies to stop pouring arms into an anti-Assad war that was systematically building up al Qaeda’s power and influence in the country, the Obama administration was caving in to those allies. The reason was simple: Powerful national security bureaucracies were threatening to blame Obama for the failure of their heroic effort to save the anti-Assad war.
The lesson of the entire affair is clear: A malignant alliance between powerful national security bureaucracies and the Middle Eastern allies with whom they enjoy mutually profitable relations are pressuring the White House to approve actions that threaten the real interests of the American people—including strengthening terrorists. The only way to reverse that situation is to direct public attention to that malignant alliance of interests, which has thus far gotten a free ride.
• First published in The American Conservative