x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Qatar initiative in Gaza signals a regional shift

Qatar certainly seeks to be a major regional player, which is a role that must be balanced in a Middle East shaken by the recent uprisings.

For a visit that last just six hours - the same as a return flight from Doha to Cairo - the visit of the Emir of Qatar to the Gaza Strip could have remarkable consequences for long-term regional events.

For Palestinians hammered by Israel's blockade since 2007, it represented a victory: not merely a challenge to the blockade by an Arab state, but a reminder that Gazans are not alone and not forgotten. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was the first Arab leader to visit the Strip since Jordan's King Abdullah in 1999.

The visit was the latest in a pattern of the GCC states increasingly using their wealth and diplomatic heft to benefit the broader region. Qatar contributed substantially to rebuilding southern Lebanon after Israel's 2006 bombardment, and has pledged to invest billions in post-Mubarak Egypt. Along with other Arab countries, it contributed to last year's mission in Libya to topple Muammar Qaddafi.

Behind the more muscular foreign policy, there has been a nuanced shift of regional alliances amid the Arab uprisings. Khaled Meshaal, the outgoing political leader of Hamas, chose Doha when relocating from Damascus, and both Qatar and Egypt have made it easier for Hamas to turn away from the dying Assad regime.

Tuesday's visit to Gaza, as opposed to Ramallah, will be seen as supporting the Islamist movement and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, perhaps at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas. Qatar's outreach to Gaza is commendable but it could prove damaging if it pulls the two sides further apart.

Mr Abbas, although invited, chose not to attend Sheikh Hamad's visit. Statesmanship might have dictated that he lay aside his differences with Hamas for a day - Qatar certainly made a gesture of similar, if not greater, historic importance. Engagement between the two sides is the only long-term solution for Palestinians, and the only hope of resistance against an occupying power bent on keeping them apart. Future diplomatic overtures by Qatar and the other GCC states must work towards reconciliation.

But there is another, immediate dimension to the Gaza visit, which is one of dire necessity. The blockade is systematically destroying the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians. Sheikh Hamad's visit, and his pledge to increase aid to the Strip, must be just the first crack to break the blockade.

Qatar certainly seeks to be a major regional player, which is a role that must be balanced in a Middle East shaken by the recent uprisings. The decades-old cause for Palestinian justice, however, is as true today as it ever was.