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Israel-Palestine war: With its fixer role in the limelight, Qatar eyes a full ceasefire

The conflict has shifted regional diplomacy in favour of Qatar, but Doha's ties to Hamas are facing renewed scrutiny from some in Washington
A man carrying the body of a dead child in Gaza City, on 24 November 2023 (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)

Brokering a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is emerging as the next big test for US ally Qatar, as the Gulf nation looks to cement its role as the Middle East's go-to mediator and fend off criticism over its ties to Hamas. 

Qatar, along with Egypt, has taken the lead role in negotiating a temporary truce in Gaza to help release captives held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The truce has also brought much-needed reprieve to Palestinians in the Strip and allowed some humanitarian aid to trickle in. 

This week, CIA director Bill Burns and the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, gathered in Doha with Egyptian intelligence officers and Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani to discuss broadening the truce.

Announcing a one-day extension of the pause early on Thursday, Qatar's foreign ministry spokesperson, Majed al-Ansari, said Doha's ultimate aim was to work towards a permanent ceasefire. 

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"Qatar is eyeing the big ball now," Bader al-Saif, a professor at Kuwait University, told Middle East Eye.

"It wants to leverage the momentum of the prisoner exchange for something permanent and eventually move the conversation to talks on a two-state solution."

'It's unlikely Hamas will leave Doha despite calls from some US lawmakers'

- Azzam Tamimi, Hamas expert 

Several Israeli officials have publicly railed against a ceasefire, saying the current lull in fighting will end only when all hostages are released. Meanwhile, the US continues to publicly back Israel's stated war aim of eliminating Hamas. 

For Qatar, sealing a ceasefire to the Israel-Palestine war would realise its ambitions as being the Middle East’s troubleshooter, allowing it to cement diplomatic gains in Gaza while fending off some criticism in the West over its ties to Hamas. 

The stakes couldn't be higher. 

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One of the world's top producers of liquefied natural gas (LNG), Qatar has leveraged its wealth to punch above its weight in diplomacy, positioning itself as a broker beholden to no one, and a mediator willing to engage with fierce foes like Hamas and Israel.

That has helped Qatar salvage the fragile truce, like on Saturday when Qatari intelligence officials made an unusually public visit to Israel to troubleshoot the truce with Mossad agents.

Although Qatar maintains ties with Israel, and even hosts Israeli troops at a US base, such public visits are not usually publicised.

"I don't think Israel wanted its main interlocutor to be Qatar but that’s the reality it has to deal with," Kirsten Fontenrose, a former head of Gulf affairs at the White House, told MEE.

Qatar's unique role has made it indispensable to the US, experts say.

'Biden's saviour'

"Qatar has come through as a saviour to the Biden administration time and again," Fontenrose said. "The hostage deal has just cemented that role."

Doha proved its ability to manoeuvre delicate diplomatic matters during the early days of Joe Biden's presidency by helping Washington with its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It became even more critical to the White House after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, when the West looked for alternatives to Russian energy. It has also served as a backchannel for de-escalation talks with Iran.

In recognition of Qatar’s role, its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, was the first Gulf leader to meet Biden at the White House. During the visit, he secured the designation last year of major non-Nato ally for his country. Qatar has splashed billions on US arms and is home to al-Udeid, the US's largest military base in the region.

Thursday's announcement that the truce was extended for an additional day also offered a brief reprieve to the Biden White House, as it struggles to thread the needle between unconditional support for Israel and concerns amongst a small but growing number of lawmakers in his party over the high civilian death toll in Gaza.

'Qatar and Egypt are the only one's who know who would be willing to work with the US and Israel once the fighting stops'

- Kirsten Fontenrose, former White House official

The truce has also preceded a drop in attacks on US military assets in the region by Iran-backed groups, which had raised the risk for Washington of escalation with Tehran. 

White House officials say they are using the lull in fighting to press Israel to conduct a more precise military campaign in southern Gaza and prevent a mass forced displacement of Palestinians that Washington's Arab allies have said is a redline. 

Biden has held no less than four public calls with the Qatari leader since 7 October, underscoring its pivotal role in US efforts to contain the war. 

In a White House readout of his call last week, Biden said he thanked the Qatari emir for the "personal role" he and his team played in getting the hostage deal across the finish line. 

While the war has boosted Qatar's clout, it has also raised questions about the future of Doha's ties to Hamas, whose political leadership Qatar hosts. 

Israel has vowed to kill Hamas's leaders, while the US has told its Arab partners they can no longer conduct "business as usual" with the group.

"Those questions about Qatar's ties to Hamas are going to become more prominent in the weeks ahead," Fontenrose said.

'Real action in Doha'

Since the outbreak of the war, some in Washington have become more vocal in criticising Qatar over its ties to Hamas.

Republican Senator Ted Budd on Tuesday accused Qatar of speaking "out of both sides of its mouth", dealing with Hamas and Israel. He accused Qatar of having a "pro-Hamas policy" that was a "significant liability".  

Republican Senator Mike Lee said "Qatar has blood on its hands" for hosting Hamas's leadership. 

Qatar is no stranger to criticism.

For years, it has faced charges that it was too cosy with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, while its state-owned media channel, Al Jazeera, has been attacked by defenders of Israel for its coverage of Palestine. 

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Qatari officials have fervently pushed back against the criticism by some US lawmakers.

Qatar's ambassador to the US, Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, took the lead and penned an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal stating that his country doesn't endorse Hamas and explained Doha's ties to the group.

"The criticism from lawmakers and some US officials was seen as coming in bad faith by the Qataris, particularly at a time when they are negotiating on the US’s behalf," Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on the Gulf at the Baker Institute, told MEE.

Hamas was based in Damascus until 2012, when it fell out with the Syrian government over that country’s civil war. Qatar agreed to host the exiled leadership at the request of the US to maintain an indirect line of communication with the group, Qatari officials say.

Qatar has also coordinated directly with the US and Israel to finance electricity for Gaza, fund reconstruction projects and pay impoverished civil servants salaries.

Saif, from Kuwait University, said the success of the truce and the release of Israeli captives has been crucial for Qatar because it has allowed them to minimise criticism in Washington.

"The CIA director is in Doha. The head of Mossad is in Doha. That's where the real action is," he said.

Love letters

Qatar's regional clout has also received a boost amid the war. 

In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with allies like Egypt, imposed a blockade on Doha alleging it supported "terrorists", a charge Doha vehemently denied.

Qatar weathered the embargo and has since moved on, working to mend ties with its neighbours by using events like the 2022 World Cup to showcase its improved relations with other regional states.

"The war has shown the appetite to move beyond the Gulf rift," Saif said. "Right now, we have Sisi and Tamim exchanging love notes on X," he added, pointing to a social media post where the Egyptian and Qatari leaders thanked each other for their joint mediation efforts. 

However, under the surface, competition lingers, and Palestine has always been a theatre of intrigue for Gulf leaders. 

'The ground in the Gulf has clearly shifted to Qatar's position on the Israel-Palestine conflict'

- Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute

Saudi Arabia has reportedly eyed snagging the custodianship of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from Jordan. While Qatar hosts Hamas's leadership, the UAE is home to the exiled Fatah leader in Gaza and Hamas rival, Mohammed Dahlan. 

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Israel's military is floating a plan for "Hamas-free safe zones" in Gaza that would be ruled by a government backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

"Certainly, if Israel looks to parachute in a new Gaza leadership from the UAE, it would dent Qatar's influence,"  Ulrichsen said. 

Qatar has also faced calls from some US lawmakers to extradite Hamas's political leadership in Doha to the US. 

For now, all that is a distant possibility experts say. And Hamas appears to be gaining support in the occupied West Bank and neighbouring Jordan amid the war. 

"It's unlikely Hamas will leave Doha despite calls from some US lawmakers," Azzam Tamimi, an expert on the group told MEE.

"The war has strengthened Hamas. It's not disappearing. So the US and Israel will need Qatar even more."

An outpouring of popular support for Palestine across Arab capitals and rage at Israel over its devastating bombing campaign has also made Qatar's approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict more mainstream with Gulf leaders.

Doha publicly ruled out officially establishing ties with Israel until its conflict with Palestine was resolved, amid the recent normalisation frenzy spearheaded by the Trump and Biden administrations. 

Leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are now seen playing catchup with Qatar, calling for a ceasefire, while Saudi Arabia has frozen its normalisation talks with Israel. 

“The ground in the Gulf has clearly shifted to Qatar's position on the Israel-Palestine conflict," Ulrichsen told MEE.

Can Qatar be a kingmaker in Gaza?

But Qatar still faces risks to its prestige if the truce collapses, experts say.

In early December, Qatar is preparing to host the Doha Forum, where it often spotlights its diplomatic heft. A return to fighting or a breakdown in the release of hostages could be embarrassing for Qatar's leaders, experts say.  

Meanwhile, Qatari officials have told their US counterparts and some lawmakers that they are frustrated with Hamas, a former senior US official and senior congressional aid told MEE on condition of anonymity. 

“Qatar has shown it’s able to make its channel with Hamas work to deliver the hostages, but Hamas also embarrassed Qatar terribly with the 7 October attack,” Kenneth Katzman, a senior advisor at the Soufan Group, who previously advised the US Congress on the Gulf region, told MEE.

"Qatar said it was working to moderate Hamas by engaging with them. That blew up. So there was a lot of hand ringing in Doha over what Hamas did."

Qatar's mediating skills are going to face an even stiffer test if and when Hamas releases all the civilian hostages in Gaza and talks move to the more politically sensitive exchange of military-aged men and eventually, combatants.

Hamas says it wants all Palestinian prisoners in Israel released, including Hamas officials and Palestinian fighters of the Qassam Brigades.

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An exchange of combatants would come as far-right Israeli lawmakers press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume the war, threatening to dissolve his government.

Around 140 hostages are believed to remain in Gaza. Even if a deal is reached, at the current rate of roughly 10 hostages released per day holds, the truce would end in about two weeks, with Israel vowing to go back on the offensive. 

"Basically, there is a finite number of hostages," Ulrichsen said.

"Qatar's challenge is to  broaden truce talks to the political sphere."

Israeli officials haven’t spelt out their endgame for Gaza when the fighting ends. But its neighbours, Jordan and Egypt, have rejected appeals from the US and Israel to become entangled in Gaza’s security, MEE has reported previously.

So far Qatar is the only Arab state to have publicly dispatched senior officials to Gaza.

The Qatari state minister for international cooperation, Lolwah al-Khater, and chairman of the Qatar committee for the reconstruction of Gaza, Khaled al-Hardan, visited the besieged enclave on Sunday. In a video, Khater praised the Palestinian people for their courage. 

"Qatar is seen as an honest broker in Gaza by the Palestinians right now," Fontenrose told MEE, adding that its importance to Washington and Israel in the next stage of the conflict is only going to increase. 

"The Americans, Emiratis and Saudis don’t know who the next generation of political leadership in Gaza is," she told MEE.

"Qatar and Egypt are the only ones who know who would be willing to work with the US and Israel once the fighting stops."

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