The gas-rich nation of Qatar has become a key intermediary in the fate of the 220 hostages currently held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip following the terror group’s deadly attack on Israel on October 7, 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 terrorist groups by the West, while trying to preserve its close security ties with the United States.
Under arrangements stemming from past Hamas ceasefire understandings with Israel, the gas-rich emirate of Qatar has in recent years 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’s political office in its capital of Doha for over a decade. Among officials based there is Khaled Mashaal, the former head of Hamas who survived a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan that threatened to derail that country’s peace deal with Israel; and Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s current chief.
The US 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’s 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’s attack on October 7 could be released if Israel stops its airstrikes — an incredibly unlikely suggestion as Israel prepares for a ground offensive inside the Gaza Strip.
The October 7 attack saw thousands of Hamas terrorists breach the Gaza border fence and conduct massacres in Israeli communities, taking the lives of some 1,400 people.
Israel’s military says at least 224 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 killings on October 7, the deadliest day in Israel’s history.
However, the Biden administration has repeatedly praised Qatar for its efforts in working to free the hostages and US 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, has channeled the wider anger in the Arab world over Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip, which was launched after the attack inside Israel with the goal of eradicating Hamas and destroying their infrastructure.
According to unverified reports by the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 5,700 Gazans have been killed in the Israeli air campaign. The number of terror operatives among them is unknown.
On Tuesday, the emir lashed out at Israel’s backers, accusing them of giving the country a “free license to kill” and declaring that “enough is enough.”
“It is untenable for Israel to be given an unconditional green light and free license to kill, nor is it tenable to continue ignoring the reality of occupation, siege, and settlement,” the Qatari leader said.
“It should not be allowed in our time to use cutting off water and preventing medicine and food as weapons against an entire population,” he added, referring to Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza, as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has termed the effort to raise the pressure on Hamas.
Israeli leaders have said it is unthinkable that the country should keep supplying goods and energy to the enclave following the onslaught, and with terrorists holding hundreds captive.
Placing the blame for regional insecurity on Israel, Al-Thani called for “an earnest regional and international stance vis-à-vis this dangerous escalation that we are witnessing, and which threatens the security of the region and the world.”
During Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup last year, Palestinian flags were prominently displayed and Israeli journalists were sometimes harassed.
Since Saturday, several dozen aid trucks have been granted passage into Gaza after being checked by Israel for weapons or other items that could be used by Hamas. But international organizations say some 100 a day are needed to meet the needs of the 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 years-long 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 US and others over its pan-Arab satellite news network Al Jazeera. It aired statements from the late al-Qaeda 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 US military’s Central Command at its sprawling Al-Udeid Air Base. The US 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 US 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 US. After the Hamas attack, Qatar and the US 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 straightforward 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.”