Qatar’s Gaza Mediation: Striking the Right Balance

Qatar, a key player in negotiations for temporary pauses and Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps, has been criticized for its relationship with Hamas, which has enabled its mediation efforts. However, the Gulf state’s indispensability has been largely ignored. Last month, Qatar negotiated a seven-day truce in the Gaza war and exchanged over 100 Hamas-held hostages for 240 Palestinians in Israeli jails. David Barnea, head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani to revive prisoner swap talks with Hamas.

The meeting was arranged after Israeli forces mistakenly killed three kidnapped Israelis that had escaped Hamas, reinforcing popular demands for Israel to release 128 remaining hostages abducted by Hamas. Far-right figures in Israel and the United States have criticized Qatar for hosting exile Hamas leaders on its soil. A senior Israeli foreign ministry official warned that Israel would “settle accounts” with the emirate once the Gaza war was over.

Qatar funded the housing complex in Gaza and salaries of Hamas-controlled government employees in coordination with Israel. Israel exploited Qatari support of Hamas to keep the Palestinian polity divided and incapable of equitably negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Qatari officials claim they decided to host Hamas leaders in 2012 after US President Barak Obama’s administration asked the Gulf state to establish an indirect channel for communication with the Islamist group.

The presence of the Hamas office in Qatar is not meant to be an endorsement, as Qatar’s ambassador to the US, Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, clarified. The US and Qatar agreed to revisit the Gulf state’s relationship with Hamas once all hostages have been released. The review’s outcome is likely to depend on whether Hamas survives the Gaza war, which could mean the US and Israel need a backchannel. If Hamas survives and is expelled from Qatar, it is likely to move to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, or Iran, complicating future backchanneling.

The Hamas office in Qatar was established after US and European outreach to engage Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In 2010, US State Department diplomat Rachel I. Schneller debated Hamas representative Osama Hamdan in Doha. The meeting occurred during Israel’s negotiation for Gilad Shalit’s release in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

The talks between Israel and Hamas, which took place years before Hamas’s involvement in a peace process, were marked by deep-seated distrust. The US and Europeans demanded that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence for peace, while Hamas demanded evidence that the US would pressure Israel to halt its West Bank settlement activity and engage in peace talks. Qatar, a country supported by Hamas, is a target of conservative ire due to its long-standing relationships with Islamists and past support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey has resisted US pressure to cut ties with Hamas, while Malaysia has cracked down on a local NGO that served as a major Hamas fundraiser. Egypt, with its only non-Israeli border with Gaza and history of governing Gaza until it was conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, is in a class of its own. Qatar, on the other hand, is emerging as a winner from the Gaza war, becoming a trusted and capable negotiator between Israel and Hamas.

GazaHamasIsraelQatarQatar's Gaza MediationQatar's Gaza Mediation: Striking the Right Balance