Saudi Arabia is behind the latest reconciliation moves between Qatar and the generals’ regime in Egypt. The Israeli political and security establishment ascribe great importance to the rapprochement between these two moderate Sunni states, and believe that if the Saudi reconciliation effort succeeds, it will be possible to use these changes to help stabilize the situation in the Gaza Strip, given the close ties between Qatar and Hamas.
On December 20, Egypt and Qatar made simultaneous announcements about their reconciliation, bringing to an end a dispute that began when the generals rose to power in Egypt in July 2013. Egypt, like the Persian Gulf states, accused Qatar of intervening in its internal affairs. The Egyptian generals were angered by the alliance between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and by the financial aid Qatar provided to Hamas.
They also objected to the negative coverage of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi by the Al Jazeera network, which is sponsored and funded by Qatar.
Israel views these reconciliation moves as positive, and believes they reflect an effort by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states – Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – to return Qatar to the moderate Sunni bloc, driving a wedge between it and the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni jihadist organizations active in the Middle East.
Egypt seeks to ensure that Qatar will stop providing financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood in its territory. However, despite reports in the Kuwaiti press that Qatar has committed to also stop all funding of Hamas, this has not been confirmed by sources considered reliable. It is also possible that the Egyptians and Qataris will reach another arrangement, whereby Qatari money – as well as fuel that Qatar wants to provide to Hamas in the Gaza Strip for free – will be transferred under an agreement with the Egyptians.
This Saudi Arabian move most likely has another purpose beyond bolstering the moderate Sunni bloc in the Arab world. Over the past two months there has been a significant rapprochement between Hamas and Iran, after a two-year rift over the civil war in Syria (in which Hamas transferred its support from the President Bashar Assad regime to the Sunni opposition, because of its identification with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood).
Following the war between Israel and Hamas last summer, Tehran suggested to Hamas that it renew its financial aid and, especially, its smuggling of arms into Gaza. Saudi Arabia is concerned about a renewed expansion of Iranian influence in the region – a significant reason for it to urge Egypt to reconcile with Qatar, return it to the moderate Sunni camp, and in that way influence Hamas’ moves in Gaza.
Israeli security officials described the Saudi moves as “ambitious,” and see them as possibly moderating Hamas’ positions in its long conflict with Israel.
Meanwhile, the defense establishment – based on indirect messages Hamas has been sending Israel in recent days – believes the organization’s leadership in the Gaza Strip remains firmly opposed to any renewed military confrontation with Israel.
The rocket fire at the Negev two weeks ago was the work of a radical faction affiliated with global jihadist groups. To date, it still isn’t clear who was behind last Wednesday’s sniper fire that seriously wounded an Israel Defense Forces soldier near the perimeter fence east of Khan Yunis, but Israel is convinced Hamas was not involved. After those attacks, Hamas moved to prevent further fire.
The organization also refrained from responding to Israel’s retaliatory bombing, in which a Hamas observation officer was killed and several other operatives in its military wing wounded. Security officials believe Hamas wants to avoid any escalation for fear of any additional damage in Gaza, and is thus trying to curb the smaller factions.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, attacks continued – the latest being the throwing of a firebomb near Ma’aleh Shomron last Thursday that seriously wounded 11-year-old Ayala Shapira and lightly wounded her father. The overwhelming majority of West Bank attacks continue to be local initiatives with no organized network behind them.