By Girish Linganna
In a significant development toward easing the ongoing conflict in Gaza, a meeting took place on Thursday at an elegant white-domed palace in Qatar. The Prime Minister of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, hosted the spy chiefs of the United States and Israel, namely CIA Director William J. Burns and Mossad chief David Barnea. This gathering marked a hopeful moment after a month of intense, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
Qatar, despite its small size, played a substantial role in mediating discussions. Following the meeting, the White House announced a daily four-hour ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian relief, with the potential for a hostage exchange in the future.
The Prime Minister explained his involvement in the intricate and evolving negotiations during an extensive interview on Wednesday, conducted in the very palace where the intelligence chiefs convened the following day. He remarked, “This marks a positive initial stride that we aspire to strengthen in the days ahead. We are optimistic that it can pave the way for a more enduring and sustainable resolution.”
Thursday’s progress involved an agreement for regular humanitarian breaks, aiming to alleviate the severe hardships faced by Palestinian civilians in Gaza. This was a partial response to global calls for a cease-fire. Israeli reports emphasized facilitating the evacuation of Palestinians to southern Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely recognized that without some concession, Israel could jeopardize recent diplomatic strides with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with risking the unwavering support received from the United States for the war against Hamas.
What could happen next is an agreement for Hamas to release over 100 foreign civilian hostages and the Israeli women and children abducted on October 7. In return, more than 100 Palestinian children and women reportedly held in Israeli prisons would gain freedom. However, negotiations for the hostage release are at a standstill, as Israel insists that Hamas releases captives in Gaza first.
The hostage situation is more intricate than what was previously shared, as per Qatari and U.S. officials. Some captives might be held by groups other than Hamas, and finding them in the complex network of caves beneath Gaza and securing their release might necessitate a pause in the fighting, lasting at least three days, possibly longer, as informed Qatari officials suggest.
Mohammed, who also serves as the foreign minister, has the delicate task of mediating in the ongoing conflict. At first glance, it might appear an unlikely role, as Qatar often faces criticism from supporters of Israel for hosting Hamas leaders and allowing positive media coverage of the group. However, insights from the Qatari prime minister, supplemented by discussions with other high-ranking Qatari and U.S. officials, reveal that the reality is much more intricate. The Qatari channel to Hamas, it seems, has been crucial for both Americans and Israelis.
Qatar presents a paradox in the Persian Gulf. It shelters Hamas leaders, considered terrorists by the United States and Israel, much like it hosted the Taliban. Despite this, Qatar maintains a strong pro-American stance in its foreign policy, hosting the significant air base at al-Udeid, a key hub for U.S. Central Command. Decades ago, Qatar made a strategic decision to leverage its extensive natural gas reserves, resulting in considerable wealth for the emirate. Some of this wealth has been used to attract American universities and schools to Qatar, contributing to a modern educational system that is fully accessible to women.
When it comes to Hamas, the straightforward reality is that without Qatar as an intermediary, the United States and Israel would lack a reliable channel to negotiate the release of hostages or engage in any discussions involving the terrorist group. Consequently, chiefs of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, have been frequent visitors to Doha for over a decade. Despite criticisms from some quarters, Qatar seems to have been, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “a reliable partner in peacemaking.”
Critics of Qatar point to its initial pro-Hamas statement on Oct. 7: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds Israel solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.” Groups like the Middle East Media Research Institute and other pro-Israel organizations highlight this initial comment as proof that Qatar supports terrorism. However, Qatari officials assert that they soon recognized the inaccuracy of this first statement, made before the full details of Hamas’s actions became clear, and subsequently amended it.
The Prime Minister was clear. The violence against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 was “horrific,” he told me. “Nobody could justify it.”Starting from the second day of the conflict, Qatar began utilizing its communication channel with Hamas political leaders to attempt the release of hostages. One challenge was that Hamas asserted it had only captured Israeli soldiers, while other groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and an informal militia called the “shabiha” claimed responsibility for the remaining hostages.
Hamas has consistently stuck to their story since Day One, stating, ‘We didn’t take any civilians. Our mission was to take the soldiers for a prisoner exchange,’” shared a senior Qatari official who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. He described the situation on Oct. 7 as “a mess,” with “thousands of people jumping the fence and kidnapping people.”
The Prime Minister of Qatar emphasized that he couldn’t verify Hamas’s assertion that other groups had captured the civilians: “To be an objective mediator, my principle throughout this entire event has been that I will not believe any words from anyone until I see things in front of me.”
In the initial days, it wasn’t clear that Israel was inclined towards hostage negotiations with Hamas. On October 7, Israel endured 1,400 deaths, and the hostages were additional victims of that shocking attack. Israel appeared more focused on the security of the state itself rather than individual concerns. However, as pressure mounted from hostage families and the Biden administration, Israel eventually supported the indirect hostage talks.
A test of the effectiveness of the Qatar-Hamas channel emerged on Oct. 20 with the release of two Americans, Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie. A six-hour cease-fire was agreed upon, allowing them to travel to the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, delays occurred when Hamas demanded that Israel not monitor the transfer. The situation escalated when Hamas spotted surveillance drones and insisted on their removal.
The situation appeared poised for a broader release of hostages on Oct. 25. However, two days later, Israel initiated its ground invasion of Gaza, prompting Hamas to withdraw from the deal. The escalating death toll and destruction caused by Israeli bombing further solidified Hamas’s stance. The widespread destruction occurring daily is a dynamic factor on the ground. The requests from yesterday may not be relevant today,” remarked Mohammed.
Establishing communication has become increasingly challenging. Initially, the Qatari prime minister could reach out to Hamas political leaders in Doha, who would then contact military leaders in Gaza via cellphones. However, Hamas reported that Israeli bombing had destroyed two cell communication nodes, rendering regular calls impossible. The situation exacerbated when Israel temporarily severed all communication channels.
The response, which previously required two to three hours, now extends to 12 to 48 hours,” clarified the unidentified Qatari official. The delay in communication added another layer of complexity to the hostage-release agreement, which included 10 to 15 items related to timing and transfer arrangements.
The broader challenge, extending beyond the release of hostages, revolves around how the war will conclude and who will govern Gaza “the day after.” The Prime Minister of Qatar holds a pessimistic outlook.
The preferable situation involves a single government overseeing both Gaza and the West Bank. A transition from the current state to this unified governance would be necessary. However, I’m uncertain whether the countries in the region would be willing to engage in such a process given the extent of destruction and loss of life,” he elaborated.
The process of transitioning could be facilitated if the Palestinian Authority expresses its willingness to play a role in governing Gaza post-Hamas, contingent on the United States renewing its commitment to a two-state solution.
Mohammed conveyed that he has urged his Israeli contacts: “We’ve consistently emphasized the necessity to shift away from hostility. We firmly believe that by addressing the hostage situation, we can contribute to progressing towards practical solutions to bring about an end to the war.”
The United States and Israel have, on multiple occasions, sought assistance from Qatar, as affirmed by both U.S. and Qatari officials. In 2012, Qatar agreed to host Hamas with the approval of the U.S. and Israel when Hamas left Syria amid the onset of the civil war there.
In 2017, upon requests from Israel and the United States, Qatar expelled five Hamas members planning an attack on Israel, according to several Qatari officials. Prior to the recent conflict, Israel and Qatar had a collaborative relationship regarding Gaza. In 2017, as the Gazan economy faced challenges due to power shortages and unemployment, Qatar, in coordination with Israel and the United States, provided financial aid. Doha initiated monthly payments ranging from $25 million to $30 million to cover fuel supplies, aid for impoverished families, and salaries for civil servants in Gaza.
The coordination was direct with Israel. … Every dollar’s destination was known to them,” clarified the unidentified Qatari official. He further mentioned that Qatar cautioned the Israelis, stating, “We are not inclined to persist unless there’s a potential for a long-term agreement guaranteeing an improved life in Gaza.” However, they were requested to extend the temporary program for a bit longer.
A Qatari official mentioned that on September 28, 10 days before the onset of the recent war, Israel and Qatar engaged in discussions regarding a long-term solution for Gaza. Israeli officials proposed testing Hamas’s reliability for three months by offering more job opportunities in Israel. They informed Qatari officials that the question of subsidy payments would be discussed later.
Subsequently, the anticipated discussion never took place. Instead, Hamas initiated its violent terrorist attack, prompting Israel to respond with an offensive that, according to Hamas’s reports, resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 civilians.
The Prime Minister of Qatar expressed his commitment to continue collaborating with his Israeli contacts. “We advocate for stability, peace, and firmly believe that the most potent factor for the safety and stability of both Israelis and Palestinians lies in achieving a peaceful resolution to this conflict.”
However, he expressed concern that if the current Gaza war concludes similarly to previous ones, Israel and the region may confront an even more severe conflict in a few years. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)