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Israel-Qatar relations snag over Gaza aid

By Kevin Flower, CNN
Rubble from last year's Israeli offensive in Gaza is recycled into building materials.
Rubble from last year's Israeli offensive in Gaza is recycled into building materials.
  • Israeli officials say Qatar offered to re-establish trade relations
  • Qatar wanted to provide economic aid to Gaza
  • Israel fears any aid would bolster Hamas, officials say
  • Gaza
  • Qatar
  • Hamas
  • Israel

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israel's government rejected a Qatari offer to re-establish trade relations that would have allowed the Gulf state to provide aid to Gaza, two senior Israeli government officials said Thursday.

One official, who did not want to be named citing the sensitivity of the matter, said there had been "tentative discussions" within the Israeli government on the informal Qatari proposal, which would have linked the re-establishment of economic ties with Israel with Israel's granting permission for the Gulf state to send reconstruction supplies and other goods into Gaza.

The official said that the idea was rejected because it was seen "as a way of bolstering Hamas" and said American and Egyptian officials had expressed similar concerns. The same official said the proposal did not come as a "formal request or offer" from the Qatari government but could offer no details on who initially presented the idea.

News of Israel's rejection of the Qatari offer was first reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Tuesday.

An official from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem could not immediately comment. Qatari officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Another senior Israeli government official said "we were favorable" to the idea of renewed relations, but that the Qatari "precondition" of allowing "large amounts" of goods into the Gaza was a deal breaker.

The official said it was not clear who would have overseen the process. The proposal did not address Israel's concerns "about the unrestricted flow of material that can be used for defensive fortifications" by Hamas and "we had to say no," the official said.

The Palestinian territory of Gaza has been subjected to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, when the Islamist group Hamas staged a violent coup ousting the Palestinian Authority government lead by Fatah, a rival political faction.

Qatar and Israel maintained trade relations from 1996 until last year. Relations fell apart after the start of Israel's military operation against Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008. The three-week campaign, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, ended with approximately 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis killed. In protest, the Qatari government in Doha ordered the Israeli trade office closed. Qatar was the only Gulf country to maintain official relations with the Jewish state.

In a statement released earlier this month after a meeting of Arab leaders, the Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabor Al-Thani criticized Israel's Gaza policy, saying it contravened international legitimacy.

"We have to concentrate on confronting the Israeli siege imposed on Gaza which is oppressive and it is our duty to save the Palestinians who are part of us and we are part of them," he said.

Qatar has long sought to bolster its role in regional diplomacy. Bringing about a deal to send in construction supplies to Gaza would be regarded by many in the Arab world as a diplomatic coup, though it is unlikely that Egypt would be receptive to such an arrangement.

The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday that Egypt had expressed its opposition to Israel over the Qatari proposal, and that it was ultimately rejected so as not to upset the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told CNN that "the Israeli newspaper report is a fairy tale and quite illogical."

"Since when do the Israelis need to consult with Egypt when they want to establish relations with any other party?" Zaki asked.

"It is clear that the Israelis do not want to offend the Qataris and therefore they (the Israelis) resorted to their usual game in striking a nerve in order to start trouble between Egypt and Qatar, just to make Israel look innocent," the spokesman added.