The Circumstance of Pomp: Hamas Makes a Stately Move

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Eyad Al Baba / APA / Landov

Palestinian honor guards greet the Emir of Qatar during a welcome ceremony in Rafah, in southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 23, 2012

The pomp in the Gaza Strip last month was significant. Hamas, the militant Palestinian group long known for parading in the streets wearing black ski masks and suicide belts, had turned out an honor guard in dress uniforms. They stood smartly alongside the red carpet rolled out for a portly man in flowing robes, the Emir of Qatar, who had arrived for a few hours on Oct. 23 in what was made very much to look like a state visit. The sultan arrived carrying $400 million to invest in the Palestinian coastal enclave, a sizeable sum even for a government that doesn’t lug suitcases of dollars into its jurisdiction through tunnels, as Hamas does. But if money was all that mattered, Mahmoud Abbas would still rule Gaza. His Palestinian Authority (PA), based in the West Bank, sends money each year into Gaza at least four times the amount from the Emir. The PA is still paying the salaries of the 70,000 teachers and other bureaucrats who stopped going to work when Hamas kicked Abbas’ Fatah party out of the place five years ago. Gaza’s skeletal economy would collapse without that money, but it’s not the currency that matters most. Hamas craves legitimacy.

A few months ago, Hamas’ Foreign Ministry announced it was going to begin training diplomats. This was an act either poignantly hopeful or nakedly deluded, because no one has diplomatic relations with Hamas. “We met with the Swiss!” an official once told me over lunch. “Europe is talking to us.” He had a limo waiting outside. But until Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani showed up, the wish remained unfulfilled.

(MORE: The Qatar Conundrum: The Emirate That Arms Syria’s Rebels Also Embraces Hamas)

“The visit of the Emir announces officially the breaching of the political and economical siege imposed on Gaza for more than five years,” Ismail Haniyeh said in receiving the honored guest. Haniyeh holds the title of Prime Minister in Gaza. In the West Bank, the same title is held by Salam Fayyad. They could scarcely be more different. Haniyeh lives in a refugee camp and delivers sermons at Friday prayers. He has a politician’s touch, but a tin ear: when Osama bin Laden was killed, he lamented the fall of “a Muslim and an Arabic warrior.” Fayyad got a Ph.D. from the University of Texas and worked at the International Monetary Fund, a pedigree that keeps money flowing from Europe and Washington and keeps him in his job despite protests across the West Bank. He is the closest thing in the Palestinian territories to an indispensable man. When Hamas negotiated the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners last year in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, the prisoners released to Gaza were put up in a luxury hotel on the beach, at the invitation of Hamas. But Fayyad quietly paid the tab.

None of this may have mattered when the two factions were on a trajectory toward reconciliation. More than a year ago, Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah agreed to bury the hatchet — not because they no longer loathed and distrusted one another but because the winds of change known as the Arab Spring were suddenly unsettling Palestinian politics too. In both Gaza and the West Bank, what ordinary people wanted most was an end to the division in their political leadership. The youth took to the streets. Office holders trembled.

But after a series of smiling promises and fulminating proclamations that a unity government would soon be announced, followed quickly by fresh elections, neither event has materialized, while the rivalry has resumed. Those in Hamas who favored making peace with Abbas, led by chairman Khaled Meshaal, lost out to those in Hamas who argued to remain on their own, not least because the Arab Spring is delivering governments into the hands of political Islamists like themselves.

(MORE: The Mainstreaming of Hamas Continues as Palestinian Unity Gains Steam)

Significantly, the most recent unity deal was brokered by none other than the Emir of Qatar, a fact that lent specific import to his arrival. A year ago, Abbas had the field of statecraft all to himself, a bookish moderate transformed by his U.N. bid for Palestinian statehood into an almost popular leader — last year at least. In 10 days, he visited seven countries in four continents, lobbying for support in the Security Council, where the bid for full U.N. membership would die (to be replaced this year by a bid for a lesser, but still potent status). At each airport, the pageantry on the tarmac doubled as code. The presence of an honor guard signaled full recognition for Palestine as a state. In the capitals of the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Venezuela, as well as Casablanca, Abbas reviewed troops with swords held high — nearly scraping the clouds in Caracas, where a cue-ball bald Hugo Chávez laid it on thick. (Abbas’ aides credited him with coaxing the excitable Venezuelan away from Iran, and by extension Hamas, simply by laying out the moderate position.) In Bogotá, the capital that mattered most, the reception was muted. If anyone failed to notice the absence of an honor guard, the largest lettering on the press badges read “Visita de Trabajo” — working visit, not state. (The president of the Council of Europe had put it this way after an Abbas visit: “It’s hard to be a statesman without a legal state.” But as a council secretary pointed out, while waiting for one to emerge, what you do is play the part. It’s part of being “recognized” as a sovereign: the trappings of statehood matter.)

Almost every other Latin American country supported Palestinian statehood, but Colombia, which represented the region on the Security Council, announced it would follow the bidding of the U.S., which has sent more than $1 billion in military aid to Bogotá over the past decade. So money mattered. But it wasn’t everything: a few days later, UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state.

“It’s the first time we’re taking the initiative,” said Hayel Fahoum, the Palestinian ambassador to Paris. “You find that you are capable of imposing your identity in the international arena.”

Now, so is Hamas.

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