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PoliticsMiddle East

Disputed Qatar a good fit for Israel-Gaza peace talks?

October 13, 2023

Qatar's regional interests, multifaceted policies and decades of experience in mediating count more than the oil-rich emirate's close relations to Iran and Hamas in the current conflict.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani maintains relations with conflicting partiesImage: Joerg Carstensen/picture alliance

In light of the escalation of the current war between Israel and the Hamas terror group, mediation efforts have started to focus on cease-fire negotiations and a potential prisoner swap. 

Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU and others.  

The first round of talks reportedly aims to see if a swap of Israelis and foreigners kidnapped by Hamas fighters last Saturday for Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons could be a realistic next step. 

So far, Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and shares a border with Israel and Gaza, has offered a hand at the negotiating table.

Turkey, which maintains ties with Israel as well as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — of which Gaza's Hamas is the Palestinian wing — has also signaled its willingness to arbitrate.

Qatar, which has already mediated between the belligerents several times in the past — such as during the 2014  Israel-Gaza War — is back at the negotiating table, too.

But Qatar froze relations with Israel in 2009 and is widely known as a major financier of Hamas — which the EU, US, Germany and many other countries have labeled a terrorist organization.

Last Saturday, Qatar also said Israel bore responsibility for the Hamas attack that killed some 1,300 Israelis, internationals and soldiers.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the UK-based think tank Chatham House, nevertheless sees Qatar as a viable mediator between Israel and Hamas.

Middle Eastern countries should lead the way in de-escalating the current war, she argues in a piece on the think tank's website. 

"Qatar has long had a pragmatic relationship where it has used financial incentives to manage and de-escalate various rounds of tensions and war between Israel and Hamas," Vakil told DW, adding that she sees Qatar as "a natural go-between to secure the hostages and find entry points to de-escalate and protect people on the ground as the humanitarian issue worsens."

Ismail Haniyeh during a speech on Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera
After Hamas attacked Israel last Saturday, the group's political leader Ismail Haniyeh praised them for half an hour on Qatari TV channel Al JazeeraImage: Hamas Chief Office/ZUMA Pree Wire/picture alliance

Qatar's close ties with all political actors

Guido Steinberg, senior associate at the Berlin-based think tank German Institute for International and Security Affairs and author of several books on terrorism in the Middle East, sees Qatar's mediating role in the current conflict as feasible given the emirate's good relations with opposing political actors. 

For example, Qatar maintains a large US airbase while at the same time fostering good relations with Iran — an archenemy of America and Israel and a major Hamas backer.

Recently, Qatar took possession of $6 billion (€5.7 billion) in Iranian funds as part of a deal to free Americans detained in Iran.

On Thursday, US cable network CNN  that the US and Qatar had "reached a 'quiet understanding' not to allow Iran to access any money following Hamas' bloody attack on Israel on Saturday." 

Qatar has also served as Hamas' political headquarters for more than a decade. And Ismail Haniyeh, its current head, has lived in Turkey and Doha since 2020.

Last Saturday, Haniyeh shared his proud take on Hamas' attack of Israel in an uninterrupted 30-minute broadcast on the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera — which is largely funded by the Qatari government — "without any commentary from their [Al Jazeera's] editors," Steinberg told DW.

"It is obvious to assume that Haniyeh was aware of the attack in advance, which means that at least some of the information about the impending attack was present in Doha," Steinberg said.

However, he says he wouldn't assume the Qatari government was informed about the attack in advance. 

The White House is lit in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag
International landmarks, as the White House in Washington, lit up in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flagImage: Jon Elswick/AP Photo/picture alliance

'Ties are much weaker'

Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, also doubts the Qatari government was informed, albeit for a different reason.

"As part of Qatar's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in 2021 [which ended Qatar's four-year isolation in the region], Qatar agreed to weaken their relations to Hamas to the bare minimum," she told DW.

"That included cutting the financial flows to the Gaza Strip," she adds. Bianco concludes they "don't have the leverage they used to have," which could in turn impact their influence at the negotiating table. 

She also regards the relevance of Qatar's Al Jazeera as more limited compared to the past. "It still is a powerful instrument but not as powerful as it used to be before social media," she told DW.

Fitting perhaps that Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani's sister has taken to social media. 

While international landmarks, such as the White House in Washington, Berlin's Brandenburger Gate or the Sydney Opera House, were lit in solidarity with the colors of the Israeli flag, it was the Palestinian flag that was projected on the National Museum of Qatar and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar's capital Doha.

Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani shared photos of the light installations with her 1 million Instagram followers, writing in Arabic, "Oh Allah, we entrust Palestine and its people to you."

Edited by: Jon Shelton

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.