Islamist Hamas in Gaza gaining international legitimacy?

Since the Islamist Hamas movement kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and even more after the organization forcibly took over the impoverished Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has worked hard to isolate Hamas. It imposed a strict blockade on Gaza, and repeatedly insisted that Hamas is a terrorist organization and Israel will not negotiate with it. Israel also succeeded in keeping visiting heads of state away from Gaza.

Now Israel’s policy against Hamas seems to be crumbling. The blockade on Gaza has been gradually lifted, after Hamas built hundreds of underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that enabled a continuous flow of consumer goods into Gaza. As Egypt has opened up the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s international isolation has eased. In 2011 Hamas freed Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1000 Palestinain prisoners, including dozens who had murdered Israelis. Albeit indirectly, Israel negotiated with Hamas to finalize the exchange.

Last week, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first head of state to visit Gaza since 2007. He was met by a Hamas honor guard and driven through the streets of the densely-populated Strip by Hamas leader Ismail Haniye as hundreds of Gazans waved Palestinian and Qatari flags. He also brought his checkbook, announcing a large-scale rehabilitation project for Gaza at a cost of $400 million dollars. The construction materials will be transferred through the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

The visit was widely seen as bolstering Hamas at the expense of the more moderate Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas himself has not visited Gaza since became PA head in 2005 and the rancor between Fatah and Hamas after their conflict in 2007, and Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza, has not diminished. Israeli officials harshly criticized the Qatari Emir’s trip to Gaza.

“It is strange that the ruler of Qatar should choose sides in the internal Palestinian conflict and that his choice should favor the Hamas extremists who promote violence,” Ilana Stein, deputy spokesperson of the Israeli Foreign Ministry told The Media Line. “He has never provided such support to the PA and is now contributing to tearing apart the Palestinians. His fortune will not be helping Palestinians and Israelis live in peace but rather end up in the pockets of corrupt Hamas fat cats and reinforce those who make a living out of hatred and violence.”

Hamas has also gained strength and legitimacy from the victory of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and since Mohammed Morsi’s election earlier this year, ties between Egypt and Hamas have grown. Hamas has moved away from Iran and Syria, where the organization’s offices used to be housed, and has come closer to Qatar. Several senior members of Hamas have taken up residence in Qatar.

Some Israeli analysts said the rapprochement between Hamas and Qatar is not necessarily negative for Israel.

“Israel wants Gaza to be connected to the Arab World and not to be part of the Israeli arena,” Dr. Guy Bechor, the head of the Middle East Studies Program at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia told The Media Line. “Israel always wanted (former Egyptian leader Hosni) Mubarak to be more connected to Gaza and he refused. Israel has always said that it wants Egypt to supply power and water to Gaza instead of Israel.”

He said that most of the international community continues to see Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Yet senior Israeli officials say they are worried that the visit by the emir of Qatar will pave the way for Hamas being seen as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

“If these forces manage to convince Hamas to stop being a terrorist group and be a peaceful entity that would be positive,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line. “But that is not what we see. Hamas still wants the ruin of Israel and Qatar is joining forces to support a terrorist group.”