A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gaza Strip

Who was behind the Palestinian PM’s assassination attempt – and why?

There are currently two main theories, explaining the mysterious attempt to take the life of the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on March 13, by exploding two bombs, which targeted his convoy. Hamdallah, Abbas hand-picked appointee, is dedicated to his agenda, has strong connections to Fatah operatives, and worked hard on bringing together Fatah and Hamas.  The first theory is that his assassins likely did not want a politically moderate leader who could succeed in reunification – those people would be local Salafi jihadists. The other theory is that Hamas wanted to get him out of the way seems less likely due to  the fact that Hamas would suffer the most from the intense scrutiny, and immediately launched its investigation into this event. Besides, Hamas would be a beneficiary of the reunification effort, so trying to undermine it in such a clumsy way does not seem rational. However, it may be that there is a more complicated explanation than the purported Salafi sabotage.

Hamas indeed launched several investigations into the assassination attempts, and in the process, shut down the offices of the Qatari-Palestinian telecomm company, which allegedly refused to cooperate with the investigation. The company, Wataniya Mobile, is a subsidiary of Qatar’s Ooredoo, and according to the reports, one of the bombs, which failed to detonate, contained Wataniya’s SIM card. Wataniya, however, continues to function, while various parties blame each other.  At this point, of course, there are more questions than answers, and any assertions as to the party responsible, will ultimately, be speculative.

Still, another theory may be that there may be a state actor involved in destabilizing the situation, and making it less likely, for instance, for the PA to agree to the peace negotiations that are about to be unveiled by the Trump administration. A stand-off with Hamas would give Abbas an excuse not to give in to pressure. For Abbas, blaming Hamas is the easy way out here since it allows him to score points with his own constituency. For Hamas, however, this assassination is a major headache that it simply does not need, after having rallied for the unification. However, the mastermind of this operation clearly wanted it to look like Hamas is to blame.

After all, no Salafist jihadists claimed credit for the failed operation or issued any additional threats  Indeed, one wonders whether the ineptitude of the planners was deliberate. Perhaps there was no interest in killing the PM, or at least, the central goal was to send a message, or rather, to disrupt the growing stability and add to the pressure. Now, it may be entirely incidental that the terrorists used the Wataniya card, which just happens to be affiliated with Qatar’s own company. But if that is the case, and the company merely sold a SIM card to a bad actor, without any inkling of knowledge, why would it be refusing to cooperate with the investigation? It is possible that someone in Wataniya may be a Salafist asset, who was helping out his friends. It may even turn out to be someone fairly high in the chain. What is also possible is that Wataniya got its marching orders from the larger company, which in turn was pressured by somebody else. Who would that be? Perhaps a government member. What interest would Qatar have in sowing chaos among Palestinians just as it is trying to use the reconstruction of Gaza as a way of rehabilitating itself? Most likely none. Whatever involvement Qatar’s state entities had in this story, they were informally directed by a private party acting as a proxy.

There is, however, another actor whose Modus Operandi is to stage terrorist attacks through proxies, disrupt ongoing negotiations, while staying in the shadows and using all means possible to maintain plausible deniability. This has happened in the past with the AMIA bombing in Argentina, and quite possibly, Iran, rather than Qatar or Hamas, is actually behind this attempted assassination as well. Why would Iran want to set up Hamas, which is the beneficiary of its funding for terror attacks? Why would it also want to cast shade on its proxy Qatar and its business affiliates?

The same week Tehran and Doha officially strengthened their alliance, with Iran voicing its express support for Qatar’s government and citizens. The answer, strangely enough, is that Iran does not care. The shut down of a telecomm company is but a minor bump in the road, with no one ever the wiser – and Qatar only has itself to blame for playing multiple sides off against each other in the past. That it would be implicated in yet another inexplicable act of violence would come as no surprise to its critics.

Ooredoo-Wataniya has been expanding across the Arab world, but launched in Gaza only in October 2017, after finally getting approval from Israel. Interestingly enough, that branch is partially owned by the Palestine Investment Fund, which is the investment arm of the Palestinian Authority. Increasingly, the situation gets more complicated. Why would a company that is partially financed by PA refuse to cooperate with the investigation related to the attempted assassination of its own official?

Possibly, they simply do not trust Hamas. Possibly, they wish to avoid the negative publicity associated with such investigations, and prefer to stay closeduntil the investigation is concluded.  Possibly, however, they were pressured into hindering the investigation since OOredoo, the Qatari corporation, is the majority shareholder.

That a Salafist terrorist may have carried out the actual deed is still not out of the question – but Iran has been known to finance Salafists against its more moderate Sunni adversaries in Iraq and in Iranian Kurdistan, in the past. It is also possible, however, that despite Qatar’s claims of disassociating with terrorists, that some members of its upper echelons still maintain those connections, and through Ooredoo, had some involvement in the operation.  Regardless, disunity between PA and Hamas is more than about local rivalries and jihadist penchant for encouraging increasingly extremist governance. Rather, the PA may be increasingly under pressure not to participate in the peace talks, just as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are reportedly pressuring Abbas to go in the other directions (the sources of these rumors are London-based, pro-Qatar Arab publications). If there is a greater geopolitical maneuvering – likely planned on a higher plane than a local Salafist cell -, aimed to destabilize Palestinians, derail the negotiations, and create yet another explosive situation in Israel’s vicinity, that may explain Abbas’s odd and counterproductive outburst in calling the US Ambassador David Friedman a “son of the dog”. If the attempted assassination was meant to send a general message to Abbas, he got the message all right.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Abbas and Hamas deteriorated precipitously, as Abbas is getting ready to levy serious sanctions against Gaza. That may turn out to be bad news for both Palestinians and Israelis. In the past, whenever Hamas sensed disturbance or civil unrest, it would maintain its hold on power, by diverting attention towards Israel and directing fire in its direction. Gross corruption in the higher echelons of Hamas leadership has led to the deteriorating humanitarian situation among its constituents; international aid has been appropriated towards building terror tunnels. Who would have an interest in instigating another, undesirable war between Hamas and Israel and why?

Destabilizing Israel and distracting it from its other fronts is in the best interests of Iran. Recently, Israel was rumored to have struck at Hizbullah in Lebanon. While there is no confirmation from the Israeli officials to that story, an attack on Hizbullah is the last thing Tehran needs right now as it’s working to strengthen its positions in Syria.  Hizbullah has been weakened by its aimless involvement in the Syrian operations. Iran’s intervention in Syria proved to be costly, both financially and in terms of its human resources. As its forces are seeking to regroup, and Iran is working on developing a viable strategy, getting its proxies entangled in devastating operations with Israel is to be avoided at all costs – even if it means sacrificing minor allies.

Hamas, a Sunni terrorist organization, which, nevertheless benefits from Iran’s financial backing, is but a pawn that can be sacrificed to refocus Israel’s attention on internal matters. Tehran did not necessarily develop a plan for starting a war between Israel and Hamas; rather, it was hoping to provoke a minor local skirmish, and seeing Abbas’s inevitable reaction, which comes out of a position of increasing weakness, as Abbas is losing the respect of his own constituents and wearing out the patience of the Trump administration – it decided to take advantage of an arising opportunity. The administration still views Abbas as the lesser of the evils among current Palestinian leadership; Jared Kushner and others from the Middle East peace circuit sent a letter to the Palestinian PM with sentiments of support following the assassination attempt.

However, between the confrontation with Hamas and the signing of the Taylor Force Act, which strips the PA of US aid until Abbas stops funding terrorists, Abbas is finding himself increasingly in a corner. Hamas, on the other hand, has all the motivation in the world to lash out. The recent meeting on Gaza reconstruction between Israelis, Qataris, Saudis, and the White House, which had no Palestinian presence thanks to Abbas’ tantrum, deprived Hamas from an opportunity to whitewash itself by getting a seat at the table. Hamas retains influence through Qatar; Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, had called the leadership following the conclusions of the talks with the Trump administration which turned into the annual US-Qatar Dialogue, and pledged significant financial investment into reconstruction. That went largely unnoticed by the West, but Hamas is not being sidelined by Iran and Qatar. However, of all the Iranian assets, Hamas is the most expendable.

The recent emergence of the Salafist extremists in the area is likewise in no coincidence. Rumor in the foreign policy circles has it that they are bankrolled by particular individuals in the Gulf, rather than by governments. Qatar with its new-found legitimacy may be more careful in expunging official government accounts of any connections to extremists; however, unless the Trump administration goes after every member of every royal family in the Gulf to check for illicit connections, chances are, the funding will continue to flow and these groups will become a complement to Hamas’s extremism, if not an outright rival. Unlike ISIS, however, these elements are controllable and may prove to be a valuable force against Israelis in any future confrontations. All of this, of course, plays right into Iran’s hands, as its making preparations for furthering its engagement in Syria and other areas. The more Israel and its allies are distracted and disengaged from Iran’s favorite spheres of influence, the better it is is for Tehran. To that end, we can expect more provocative actions and unexpected developments, whose only purpose may ultimately appear to create additional sectarian devisions and chaos, at Israel’s expense and to Iran’s benefit.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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