The agreement is an attempt to balance the Biden administration’s short-term goal of rescuing as many hostages as possible with its long-term goal of trying to isolate Hamas in the wake of its October 7 attack in Israel.
“All I can say with regard to Qatar is, in this case, we very much appreciate their assistance,” Blinken told reporters last week when asked if he thought Qatar hosting a Hamas office was worthwhile. “We want to focus on making sure that we get those who are still hostage back home and with their loved ones. That’s the most important thing.”
Qatar, a small gas-rich peninsula in the Persian Gulf, has been instrumental in helping the United States and Israel secure the release of hostages and communicating with Hamas on other pressing issues, including the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and safe passage for prisoners. The exit of Palestinian Americans from the besieged Strip.
But its decision to provide sanctuary to Hamas political leaders and host an office for their operations, dating back more than a decade, has come under scrutiny from congressional Republicans and other pro-Israel hardliners.
“I want to see President Biden go after our allies, like the Qataris…and extradite these Hamas terrorists,” Rep. Max L. Miller (R-Ohio) told reporters this month.
Since the cross-border attack, the Biden administration has adopted the Israeli government policy of likening Hamas to the Islamic State, and pressuring foreign governments and financial institutions to sever ties with the group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. “No,” Blinken said at a news conference in Qatar on October 13. More business as usual with Hamas.”
The Treasury Department launched a global campaign, Imposing sanctions On Hamas members and financial facilitators in Algeria, Sudan, Turkey, Qatar and elsewhere. The armed group receives economic and military support from Iran, Israel’s main opponent.
But the zero-tolerance policy toward Hamas associations threatens the ongoing sensitive negotiations over hostages between the group and Qatar, talks that witnessed their first major breakthrough on Friday with the release of two American women kidnapped in the attack. Since then, two Israeli women have been released. The Israeli government said on Wednesday that more than half of the Hamas hostages hold passports from foreign countries, including 54 Thai Citizens: 15 Argentines, 12 Germans, 12 Americans, six French and six Russians.
The war between Israel and Hamas, more than any previous conflict in the Middle East, tests Qatar’s ability to manage its diversified portfolio Communications without crossing red lines with key partners.
Israel’s recent mediation efforts have received applause from the United States and rare praise from Israel.
“Qatar has become an essential party and stakeholder in facilitating humanitarian solutions. Qatar’s diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time,” Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi said in a statement on Wednesday.
While the potential departure of Hamas leaders from Qatar would represent a goal long sought by pro-Israel hardliners, it would likely push the movement’s representatives to reside in less friendly ports, experts say, which could reduce the West’s ability to negotiate. Thorny issues such as ceasefire agreements, humanitarian truces, or prisoner exchanges.
“If Hamas leaders leave Qatar, they will likely head to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, or somewhere further away like Algeria,” said Bruce Riedel, a Middle East researcher and former CIA official. “Moving to Syria would be a feather in President Bashar al-Assad’s cap, but they will most likely move to Iran.”
Qatar, unlike many Middle Eastern actors, has sought to maintain open lines of communication across the region and strengthen its relationships with a variety of players.
As a champion of the Palestinian cause, the wealthy country with a population of 2.7 million pays the salaries of civil servants in Gaza and makes direct cash transfers to poor families there.
It hosts Hamas’s political leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s supreme leader, and Khaled Meshal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997. In 2012, the then-Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to lead Hamas. . Visit the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.
Qatar also maintained low-key relations with Israel when other Gulf states strongly opposed any contact. In the 1990s, Qatar allowed the establishment of an Israeli trade office, the only outpost of the Jewish state in the Gulf.
Qatar, the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, shares the world’s largest natural gas field with Iran, which has led to a less hard-line policy towards Tehran than that of its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The key to Qatar’s security is its close partnership with the US military. The country is home to the forward headquarters of US Central Command, the largest US military facility in the Middle East.
During the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the Qatari base Al Udeid served as a central node in Washington’s massive effort to evacuate Americans, foreigners and Afghan allies. During the Trump administration, Qatar also hosted negotiations between US and Taliban leaders aimed at ending the conflict.
Washington considers Qatar a major non-NATO ally, and the two countries participate in billions of dollars in military sales.
Besides negotiating the release of the hostages, Qatar has also played a mediating role for the United States in various situations.
In the recent US prisoner exchange deal with Iran, which included the release of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues, Qatar agreed to manage the funds. The agreement limits Iran’s access to funds allocated for humanitarian items such as food and medicine. But after the October 7 attack and in response to pressure from the US Congress, Doha and Washington agreed not to respond to Tehran’s requests for those funds at the present time.
“Qatar has a 360-degree foreign policy,” Riedel said. “They are hosting senior Hamas political officials. They provide the United States with a huge air base. And they talk to the Iranians. They cover all their bases so they can communicate with anyone at any time in a simple way.
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