Qatar becomes a key intermediary in Israel-Hamas war as fate of hostages hangs in the balance

The gas-rich emirate maintains a relationship with those viewed as militant groups by the West while trying to preserve its close security ties with the United States

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and  Ismail Haniyeh
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (L) and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (R) during a meeting in Doha, Qatar, October 14 2023.IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY / HANDO (EFE)

The gas-rich nation of Qatar has become a key intermediary over the fate of more than 200 hostages held by Hamas militants after their unprecedented attack on Israel, once again putting the small Arabian Peninsula country in the spotlight. The negotiations have also thrust Qatar into a delicate international balancing act as it maintains a relationship with those viewed as militant groups by the West while trying to preserve its close security ties with the United States.

Under arrangements stemming from past Hamas cease-fire understandings with Israel, the gas-rich emirate of Qatar has paid the salaries of civil servants in the Gaza Strip, provided direct cash transfers to poor families and offered other kinds of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

Qatar has also hosted Hamas’ political office in its capital of Doha for over a decade. Among officials based there is Khaled Mashaal, an exiled Hamas member who survived a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan that threatened to derail that country’s peace deal with Israel. Also there is Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ supreme leader.

The U.S. sanctioned Mashaal in 2003 for being “responsible for supervising assassination operations, bombings and the killing of Israeli settlers.” Washington sanctioned Haniyeh in 2018, saying he had “close links with Hamas’ military wing and has been a proponent of armed struggle, including against civilians.”

Mashaal, in an interview with Sky News this week, said hostages taken during Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 could be released if Israel stops its airstrikes — something incredibly unlikely as Israel prepares for a ground offensive inside the Gaza Strip.

More than 200 people, including foreigners, were believed captured by Hamas during the incursion and taken into Gaza. Four of those have been released, a mother and daughter on Friday and two more on Monday. “Let them stop this aggression and you will find the mediators like Qatar and Egypt and some Arab countries and others will find a way to have them released and we’ll send them to their homes,” Mashaal said of the hostages.

Hosting the Hamas leaders has brought scrutiny to Qatar, both in the past and since the attack over two weeks ago that killed more than 1,400 people in Israel. However, the Biden administration has repeatedly praised Qatar for its efforts in working to free the hostages and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Doha during his recent shuttle diplomacy trip in the region. “Qatar is a longtime partner of ours who is responding to our request, because I think they believe that innocent civilians ought to be freed,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Monday.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, channeled the wider anger in the Arab world over Israel’s unrelenting airstrikes and siege of the Gaza Strip after the Oct. 7 attack. The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry says the strikes have killed over 5,000 Palestinians so far.

During Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup last year, Palestinian flags were prominently displayed and Israeli journalists sometimes harassed. “It is untenable for Israel to be given an unconditional green light and free license to kill, nor it is tenable to continue ignoring the reality of occupation, siege and settlement,” Sheikh Tamim said on Tuesday in a speech to the country’s Shura Council, an advisory and legislative body.

He slammed Israel’s siege, saying that it “should not be allowed in our time” to use as weapons the cutting off of water and preventing medicine and food supplies to an entire population.

Qatar, a peninsula sticking out like a thumb into the Persian Gulf with a small population and military, has always looked warily at its larger neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iran. It faced a yearslong boycott by four Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, over a political dispute, which Kuwait’s ruler at the time warned could have sparked a war.

It also bore withering criticism from the U.S. and others over its pan-Arab satellite news network Al Jazeera. It aired statements from the late al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden and has been providing nonstop coverage of the toll of Israel’s punishing airstrikes in this war with Hamas, including images of the dead and dying that have fueled demonstrations across the Middle East and wider world.

But those concerns about larger powers have seen Qatar balance the risks through its diplomacy and hosting of the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command at its sprawling Al-Udeid Air Base. The U.S. considers Qatar as a major non-NATO ally and Doha has widening defense trade and security cooperation with America, including priority delivery for certain military sales. The Al-Udeid base served as a key node in America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Qatar also hosted the Taliban officials with whom Washington earlier negotiated to end the longest U.S. war.

But Qatar’s negotiations have led to headaches in the past. Most recently, Qatar agreed to have just under $6 billion in Iranian assets once frozen in South Korea transferred to Doha as part of a September prisoner swap between Tehran and the U.S. After the Hamas attack, Qatar and the U.S. agreed not to act on any request from Tehran to access those funds for humanitarian goods as initially planned — at least for now.

That enraged sanctions-choked Iran and left Qatar “walking the tightrope of international relations,” said David B. Roberts, who has long studied Qatar as an associate professor at King’s College London and recently published the book “Security Politics in the Gulf Monarchies.”

“The reality is it is quite straight forward that so many senior government people in Israel and America want Qatar to have this role and ... Qatar ultimately will be seen in a broadly positive light in trying to free these hostages,” Roberts said. “If you do want this unique spot,” he added, “then you’re not signing yourself up for an easy life.”

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