On Sunday, it was the turn of Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas prime minister, who is likely to ascend to the political leadership of the organization in the coming months, to thank its official sponsor. Reporting for an interview with the Qatari al-Jazeera network, he extended his gratitude to the leader of the emirate, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who will be paying the salaries of Hamas employees in the Strip this month. For three years — since the second Egyptian revolution of June 2013 — those workers have generally been receiving a third of their salaries, half when they were lucky. Now, Qatar has decided to pay them in full.
But Haniyeh forgot to thank another important apparent benefactor: the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, which has reportedly waved through the Qatari cash infusion. Liberman, who once threatened to have Haniyeh assassinated within 48 hours of becoming defense minister, is understood to have agreed to the transfer of some 113 Saudi riyal ($31 million) to Hamas. Incongruous as it may seem, after less than two months in Tel Aviv’s Kirya military headquarters, Liberman appears to be a changed man, apparently tolerating an initiative that he opposed vehemently only a few years ago, during his stint as foreign minister.
Here’s a refresher: Stalled Hamas salaries were one of the key causes of the frustration in Gaza that in turn led to the 2014 war that claimed the lives of some 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis. Furthermore, during the war, Israel turned down a ceasefire proposal — conveyed, via US Secretary of State John Kerry — by Hamas’s Doha bureau that would have resolved the wage crisis in the Strip.
Earlier in 2014, when Hamas agreed to a reconciliation government with the Palestinian Authority, it was motivated largely by its inability to pay its employees. (Israel castigated PA Mahmoud Abbas over what it called the “unity government” deal with the Islamist terrorists, despite the fact that it didn’t feature a single Hamas representative, because Hamas had veto power over its members.) During the previous summer, Egypt had launched a campaign to seal the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza, and a few months later, Hamas found it had been stripped of its main source of income — the taxes on tunnel-smuggled goods. The flow of cash from abroad was also disrupted, physically, by Egypt’s actions along Gaza’s southern border.
Devastated by the loss of both its major revenue streams, Hamas agreed to dismantle its government in Gaza and support a prime minister appointed by Abbas, who would also staff and set the policy of a new government, devoid of Hamas representation. In other words, at least symbolically, it was practically an agreement of surrender on the part of Hamas, which had only two demands: that its security forces’ activities in Gaza continue without interruption, and that Abbas pay the salaries of government employees in the Strip, including those of its security forces. In all, that amounted to more than 40,000 Palestinians, many of whom are considered as terrorists by Israeli law.
Abbas went on to assemble the reconciliation government without Hamas representatives, appointing Rami Hamdallah as its prime minister. But he said it would take many months to determine whether all the people Hamas had listed as employees were indeed eligible for PA salaries. Month after month, Hamas’s workers went without pay, and the economic situation in Gaza became increasingly grave. In an attempt to pressure Abbas to pay the salaries, Hamas refused to foot any of the bill. But Abbas was glad for the opportunity to generate a crisis in the Strip, and Hamas, growing yet more desperate, began to weigh a military campaign against Israel.
Among those who warned of the increasing volatility of the situation was Robert Serry, the UN’s then envoy to the region. He approached Israeli officials with his concerns, while Qatar and others examined the possibility of paying the salaries of Hamas’s non-combatant workers. But that initiative, to which Serry was merely ancillary, sparked wrath in Liberman’s Foreign Ministry. Liberman considered it a blatant attempt to transfer money to Hamas, and castigated Serry for his role, designating him a persona non grata and threatening to revoke his visa. Several months later, the salary crisis still unresolved, war broke out.
But what a difference three years makes. Now, according to the Palestinian daily al-Quds, Israel has assented to Qatar’s request to pay Hamas’s employees. Although the salary transfers will be made via the PA, the bottom line is that the Hamas government will receive in July precisely what Israel for years refused to facilitate.
To the average Israeli, this decision may seem marginal and temporary, but it has dramatic ramifications. In many ways, Israel is recognizing and perpetuating the Hamas government — and not for the first time; it has already done so in multiple ceasefire agreements. Israel needs Hamas and, in consenting to this Qatar payment agreement, is sending an unequivocal message to the Islamists’ leadership in Gaza and elsewhere that it wants to do business, not war. This should significantly bolster the group both in Gaza and in the West Bank, where it is already on the rise, especially when compounded with Jerusalem’s recent overtures to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a close friend of Hamas.
Meanwhile, the two rival Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, have begun gearing up for municipal elections. Hamas recently announced that it intends to participate in elections in the West Bank, as well as Gaza, slated for the fall. Over the last few days, it has been releasing video ads calling on its supporters to register to vote.
Hamas is rallying its supporters, and it has good reason to do so. In light of Fatah’s plummeting popularity in the West Bank, Hamas’s rising star — now that it will be paying its employees there — could mean it will make significant gains. At the end of the day, this Israeli government may be remembered as having boosted Hamas’s cause. That’s why Haniyeh might be thanking Jerusalem along with Qatar.
If there’s a positive outcome to be gleaned from this move, it’s that, in the near term, it significantly reduces the chance of war in Gaza.
The Times of Israel reached out to Liberman, as well as Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of the Israeli government’s activities in the Palestinian territories. Both refused to comment.