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Qatar’s Role during the 2023-2024 Israel-Hamas War

15 April, 2024

By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow

Following Hamas’ attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, during which 1,400 people were killed, and the responding Israeli military operation into the Gaza strip, attempts have been made at establishing cease-fires and securing the release of the roughly 240 hostages kidnapped by the group. The dialogue to achieve this was made possible with the engagement of the State of Qatar and its ties with Hamas, widely recognized as a terrorist organization. Within 48 hours of the attack, Qatar announced its role as a mediator, and despite its engagement in this regard having garnered international praise, its connection with Hamas has also resulted in wide-spread criticism. While there have been some calls for Qatar to distance itself from Hamas, doing so could result in the closure of the only line of communication between Israel and the group, making hostage-negotiations and other future instances of deal-making more difficult.

Road to Middle East Peace

Home to the international Al-Udeid Air Base, the regional American Headquarters for US Central Command, used for airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Qatar has successfully been able to balance its international relationships between East and West. It shares and oil field with Iran and is designated as a “major non-NATO ally” by the USA, it has previously mediated between Iran and the USA, Afghanistan and the USA, Syria and the USA, Russia and Ukraine, the Taliban and the now former-Afghan government, and in cases concerning Lebanon and Sudan. It is a major arms buyer from the US and an important energy exporter to the West, it hosts an Israeli trade office despite having no formal diplomatic relations since 2009, and since 2018 has been a large benefactor to the Gaza Strip, having transferred an estimated $1.5 billion to finance public services. Qatar maintains close ties with Hamas, hosting some senior members, namely the group’s de-facto leader since 2017, Ismail Haniyeh, and its former head, Khaled Meshaal.

Hamas has maintained an office in Qatar’s capital Doha since 2012. Prior to this, the group had an office in Syria but relocated following the start of the civil war in that country in coordination with the USA for the sake of indirect communications in lieu of no formal ties. Since no other country has such close links to both Hamas and the West, this makes Qatar the best suited for mediation between Hamas and Israel, the “go-to” negotiator, giving credence to the saying, “the road to Middle East peace runs through Doha”.

The November Truce

It was clear following the October 7 attack that Israel would have to respond in force. What was unclear, however, was what the military objectives would be. These would then be elucidated as the destruction of Hamas’ infrastructure and capabilities, and the release of the hostages, among other goals. In parallel to the military operation, work was underway on the diplomatic front to secure the release of the hostages. This is where Qatar’s role in this conflict became prevalent in the global media.

Despite not condemning Hamas’ attack against Israel and blaming Israel for “escalatory policies”, a deal between Israel, Hamas and Egypt was agreed to, permitting the passage of foreign passport holders and ‘critically injured’ civilians in Gaza to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing. Qatar later announced on November 21 a cease-fire which began on November 24. This allowed for the exchange of 50 Israeli and dual-national hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, in addition to agreeing on humanitarian aid for Gaza. The USA and Egypt were also involved in the negotiations, as the hostages would leave the Gaza Strip into Egypt. A month prior, Israel’s national security chief stated that “Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions,” and that its “diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time”, giving credence to the reality that there is no alternative mediator between Israel and Hamas. For its efforts, Qatar was lauded by the USA and Israel, with the cease-fire, initially set to last four days and extended by two and which required weeks of discussions, falling apart afterwards.

National Interest

By “carving out a place for diplomacy”, Qatar is making itself relevant on the global stage. Being a geographically small country with a small citizenry, this niche in mediation has allowed Qatar to exert its influence next to world powers, advance its interests, and ensure its security. It is ambitious, rich, effectively has a monopoly over dialogue with Hamas, is willing to talk to everyone, and has an interest in peace in the region it itself is home to. It uses diplomacy to prevent spillover into a regional war that risks drawing in Iranian proxies or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and its Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, has stated that Qatar’s diplomatic priorities include “limiting the expansion of violence and the cycle of conflict in the region”. On another level, rendering itself indispensable to the global community while increasing its reputation, Qatar also protects itself from hostile intent, such as during the 2017-2021 Saudi-led boycott of Qatar.

In some ways isolated and vulnerable, Qatar seeks a form of “active” mediation, pushing for a solution by working its network of relationships, rather than just playing the role of a messenger. To put together the cease-fire for example, Prime Minister al-Thani cancelled international trips and met with the Mossad chief, Director David Barnea, and Egyptian Intelligence delegation, while simultaneously calling Hamas officials in another part of Doha.

Notable in November, was that Qatari representatives flew to Tel-Aviv to try and save the cease-fire, despite Qatar and Israel not holding official relations. On the flip-side, this may also be key, as states with official ties to Israel, particularly signees of the 2020 Abraham Accords, may not be seen as trustworthy or reliable in the eyes of Hamas and other potentially interested parties. Later in January, al-Thani visited Europe and met with Director Barnea and CIA Director Bill Burns in an attempt to make progress on the release of further hostages.

(Un)warranted Criticism

It is established that Qatar’s hosting of Hamas is the result of the desire of regional and global powers to have a conduit of communication with the group and to bring peace to the region. This, however, does not stop critics of this relationship from demanding Qatar sever these ties. The most common point of contention is the accusation that Qatar supports terrorism due to it being a major financier of Hamas and the Gaza Strip, and because many funds and materials destined for infrastructure and social works have been redirected by/to Hamas for military purposes.

Hosting Hamas has also turned into accusations of harboring Hamas, including from Israel. This is most likely in an attempt by Israeli officials to pressure Qatar into increasing its influence concerning the release of hostages, with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen calling on the international community to also pressure Qatar to demand Hamas release hostages. Qatar stated that it was “surprised and dismayed”, saying such “provocative statements” could undermine mediation. In this argument, Israeli and American politicians have accused Qatar of wanting Hamas to survive due to “ideological affinity”. The term harboring would also be fitting, as the two aforementioned Hamas key leaders residing in Doha are responsible for what can be considered war crimes; Khaled Meshaal is allegedly responsible for “supervising assassination operations, bombings and the killing of Israeli settlers”, while Ismail Haniyeh allegedly is a “proponent of armed struggle, including against civilians”.

While Qatar is very unlikely to break links with Hamas, after the scale of October 7 it is likely to distance itself from the group under heavy pressure from both Western and Arab partners. There could be “no more business as usual” with Hamas, making an already difficult dialogue even more complicated. Despite this, foreign governments may want Qatar to maintain this “tightrope” role, though one train of thought now considers Qatar’s links with Hamas to be a “failed regional policy of backing religious and populists radicals”, with October 7 serving as proof of what should not have happened had Qatar had the influence it may have thought it did.

Demands for a change in the status-quo have its limits as well, as there is fear that pushing Hamas out of the hands of Qatar could force the group to find a home in a more hostile country such as Iran. Qatar’s foreign ministry has attested as to the usefulness of its link with Hamas in creating peace, saying “we can’t afford to lose it”. While on the surface this may appear true, Qatar has also had ties with other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban, another source of international criticism.

Who if not Qatar?

Qatar is uniquely positioned to mediate between Israel, the West and Hamas. Its connection to the group’s leaders no one else has and relative positive image from both sides enables the small State to mediate on issues ranging from hostage releases to the delivery of humanitarian aid. As it stands, there is no alternative, and any alternative to Qatar would unlikely to be as useful and successful.

Since the beginning of the October 7 crisis, Qatar’s Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Emir, have used their channels of communication and reached out to all parties concerned. Their goal appears to be the de-escalation of tensions, an end to the war, the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, and the release of the remaining hostages. To this end, there is no other actor with the network and capability of weaving through the binary mess that comes from dealing with both Israel and Hamas. In the end, Qatar’s criticized leniency and support of Hamas will take a back-seat as the country will likely play a key role in finding a resolution to the war, giving it the credibility it needs to continue maintaining some degree of ties with a near globally recognized terrorist group.

Image: Doha (Source: StellaD via CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.