GAZA CITY - Among the many billboards that line Gaza's grim seafront is a prominent image of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani seated alongside Hamas' Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Underneath is the phrase: “Shukran Qatar” (Thank You Qatar).
This picture appeared two months ago, taking the place of a serious photo of the then recently elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the man who turned the Arab Spring into real political leadership.
Earlier this week, as the families in the northern Gazan city of Beit Lahiya huddled in the gym of the Rimal School to take shelter from Israeli air raids, their longterm future appeared ever more to be in the hands of Qatar. Since the end of October, when the ambitious Qatari Sheik became the first Head of State to officially visit Gaza, the Palestinians have begun to realize the swiftness of the decline of the political, ideological and financial influence of Iran, until recently a seemingly existential ally to Gaza.
“Before the Arab Spring, there were two camps in Gaza," political analyst Yalal Okal begins to explain over the roar of an Israeli F-16. "On one side, the moderates; and on the other was the front of Iran, Qatar, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, sustained by Libya and Algeria.”
The 2011 popular uprisings across the Arab world shuffled the cards again. “Libya and Algeria took autonomous roads, Syria is in chaos, Egypt put itself as the guide of change. So Hamas and Qatar need to reposition themselves," says Okal.
At least judging from the enormous posters and graffiti of Yasser Arafat and Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin back in Doha, as well as the pro-Palestinian coverage from Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, Qatar is committed to Hamas.
In 2009, after the failed attempt to accommodate the various Palestinian factions, the Sheikh opened a diplomatic office in the Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa, an elegant building with the Qatari flag flying overhead. Still, without the investment promise of $400 million to Gaza and a check of $10 million for injured Palestinians, the impression is that the people here aren’t really enthusiastic about the extravagant Qatari.
“At the meeting with the Sheikh, there were Hamas leaders, but all the other parties were missing: Fatah, PFLP, Islamic Jihad," confides a businessman who prefers to remain anonymous. "I was invited to the dinner, but I gave an excuse. The soft power of Qatar can conquer the minds but not the hearts of the Palestinians.”
Hamas gets their salaries paid for by Doha, say some locals near the Islamic National Bank, which was hit Monday in a targeted raid that damaged ATMs.
“The Palestinians don’t trust the Sheikh and that’s a good thing,” confirms Steve Sosebee, director of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.
Sosebee has a personal story to tell: In 2010, he tried in vain to get the approval of Qatari authorities to go ahead with an operation at the Hamad Hospital of Doha for 14-year-old Adil Sammunia, who had been hit in the head during the 2008-9 Israeli invasion of Gaza. "I had the money, a doctor, everything: the Sheikh only had to authorize the visa but he never replied. After two weeks I sent Adil to the States," Sosebee recalled. "But I understood then that Qatar is only interested in the Palestinian flag.”
Gaza, despite the events of the past weeks, is still a potential gold mine, ideologically but also financially. Sitting in the deserted office of the Palestinian Contractors Union, its president, Usama J. Kuheil, ponders Qatari ambitions along the map of the Gaza Strip, crossed with red and blue lines of necessary infrastructure.
“Two months ago, the Sheikh’s ambassador promised us $400 million for our 5 projects in Gaza: a city in the south and four highways," says Kuheil. "But even when we are able find the money, we don't have the materials."
In fact, the only money that Doha has actually given to Gaza is to the Qatari Charity Association and to the Qatari Red Crescent. The famous $400 million is thought by some to be quite a weapon to the regional challenge that is being played out in Gaza, but also between Doha and Tehran, which funds the Islamic Jihad. “Qatar hasn’t officially made peace with Israel but all kinds of deals go on,” observed another economist who prefers to remain anonymous. The Palestinians suppose that the support for Hamas will benefit Qatar by consolidating its competition for global Sunni leadership with Turkey, which is friendlier with Iran.
The game is just beginning. The Gaza population is currently at 1.7 million and is estimated to triple within the next 50 years. Streets and buildings will be rebuilt after the latest air strikes by Israel. Provided that the ceasefire holds. According to Kuheil, housing and infrastructure would cost $4 billion, but accounting for real business development rounds it up to about $10 billion. These days where cell phones are the window to the world, phone company Jawal doesn’t even have 3G coverage -- but you have to start somewhere. Qatar understood that first and Hamas second.