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Hamas-Israel: Qatar's foreign policy balancing act pays off

November 22, 2023

Qatar's ability to speak to all sides in the current conflict seems to have paid off with the potential release of hostages in Gaza. But the balancing act is neither easy nor selfless.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Qatari leader Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani in BerlinImage: Joerg Carstensen/picture alliance

The announcement of a possible "humanitarian pause" in the Gaza Strip can be considered a triumph for the small Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

Early on Wednesday morning, the Qatari Foreign Ministry put out a statement announcing a four day "pause" during which all sides — the Israeli military, the militant Hamas group and Hezbollah's armed wing in Lebanon — would agree to stop fighting. This would allow for the release of 50 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, in exchange for the release of around 150 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. It would also allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas-held hostages would be women and children and the Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails would also be mainly women and minors aged under 18.  

On October 7, Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU and others, launched an attack out of Gaza that killed around 1,200 Israelis and foreigners. The militant group also took an estimated 240 hostages back into the Gaza Strip. Since the attack, Israel has been bombing the around-360-square-kilometer enclave and has also prevented most water, food, fuel and medical supplies from entering.

In the past six weeks, 13,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory. 

The hostage negotiations have been going on for weeks. At one stage, the Israeli government reportedly turned down a similar offer in favor of launching its ground offensive into Gaza. However, pressure has grown — from the international community, from Israel's major ally, the US, and from the families of hostages who have demanded that their government focus on freeing their relatives.

Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and shares a border with Israel and Gaza, has also helped in the negotiations. But it is Qatar that is seen as leading them.

After the Qatari announcement, US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken posted messages on X (formerly Twitter) thanking Egypt and Qatar for their "critical partnership" in the negotiations.

Previously even Israel's national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi had praised Qatar's role, writing on social media that, "Qatar's diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time."

But not everyone is so pleased with the small Gulf state. Some commentators said negotiators should have tried harder to secure the release of more hostages. Others argued that because Qatar has been home to Hamas' political leadership since 2012, it was somehow complicit in Hamas' attacks.

Qatar has regularly said it supports the "Palestinian cause."

Foreign policy tightrope

Experts agree that Qatar is walking a fine line when it comes to its foreign policy, playing the "Switzerland of the Middle East" and keeping doors open to all comers.

"Qatar's role is particularly sensitive because the emirate has been relying on being an intermediary for well over two decades now," Guido Steinberg, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW recently.

In the past, Qatar has also acted as an interlocutor between the international community and the Taliban in Afghanistan (who also have political offices in Doha), between the US and Iran, and even Russia and Ukraine. It also hosts the largest US military headquarters in the Middle East, al-Udeid Air Base, which played a significant role in evacuations from Afghanistan in 2021. This led to Qatar being described as "major non-NATO ally."

The country has also already mediated between Israel and Hamas — such as during the 2014  Israel-Gaza War. Qatar froze relations with Israel in 2009 but allegedly maintains a relationship behind the scenes. In 1996, at a time when other countries in the region were firmly opposed to any ties at all with Israel, Qatar allowed the state to open a trade mission in Doha.

People search for survivors following Israeli bombardment on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 22, 2023
The UN says around 42% of all housing units in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged by Israelli bombingImage: Mohammed Abed/AFP

"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," Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the UK-based think tank Chatham House told DW last month. Vakil saw 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."

Qatar operates in a kind of grey zone, Joel Simon, a US journalist and author of the 2019 book, "We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages, and Ransom," wrote in the US weekly magazine The New Yorker last week.

"Though the country's officials say that they are guided by humanitarian principles and a desire to reduce conflict and promote stability, they have clearly used their leverage to gain influence and visibility, a posture which they believe enhances their security in a volatile region," he explained. Playing both sides makes Qatar a valuable ally and Qatar knows it, he concluded.

Big spender in Gaza

In the recent past, Qatar was spending an estimated $30 million (€27.4 million) a month on Gaza. But the arguments around this money are yet another example of how fraught Qatar's role is when it comes to Palestinians and Hamas.

Some have suggested Qatari money subsidizes Hamas' military wing and is used for nefarious purposes. Hamas has ruled the enclave since 2007 and also manages payments for the civil administration of Gaza.

Replying to Reuters queries about the Gaza money last month, a Qatari government official told the news agency that its cash was for needy families and the salaries of civil servants, including doctors and teachers, in the impoverished enclave. The UN says that 80% of Gaza Strip inhabitants were dependent on international aid even before the current crisis, due to the blockade Israel established after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from it.

Qatari money actually goes through Israel, the Qatari official explained to Reuters. It's transferred electronically to Israel, which then passes it on to the Hamas-run Gaza authorities, and all payments are "fully coordinated with Israel, the UN and the US," they said.

Families of hostages in Gaza joined by thousands of supporters arrive in Jerusalem nearly concluding a five-day trek from Tel Aviv.
Thousands of Israelis marched in Jerusalem to criticize their government for not doing enough to free hostages held in GazaImage: Nir Alon/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

US officials note that Hamas' fundraising system is wide, varied and intricate. Some money, including that coming from Qatar, is likely being used illegitimately, they have suggested, along with other funding, such as that from Iran, which plays a major role in supporting Hamas — as do other financial intermediaries around the world. For example, after the October 7 attack, the US sanctioned further entities it associates with funding Hamas, including an intermediary in Qatar as well as others in Sudan, Turkey and Algeria.

Will Qatar's role change now?

Despite Qatar's success in this round of negotiations, one outcome of the current conflict appears to be an agreement between Qatar and the US that the Gulf state will have to distance itself from Hamas further after the current conflict quiets down.

In mid-October, over 100 US politicians demanded that Qatar expel Hamas officials from the country. "The country's links to Hamas...are simply unacceptable," a letter addressed to the US president stated.

At the same time, the Qatari leadership has stated that it thinks further diplomacy is the answer for peace.

"The Qatari-negotiated deal between Israel and Hamas marks the first important diplomatic gain since the start of the war," Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, confirmed. And this is "an opportunity to wedge open space to advance a full ceasefire predicated on a wider diplomatic pathway," he said in a statement to DW. 

But as others have pointed out, if Qatar expels Hamas officials altogether, the militant group's representatives may well end up in another country far less disposed to help anybody out, should further diplomacy be required.

Before 2012, Hamas' political leadership was based in Syria.

Edited by: Anne Thomas

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa