Qatar’s Role in the Hamas-Israel Crisis:
Diplomatic Triumph or Double Dealing?
Claudia De Martino 10 January 2024

Qatar is a small Gulf state that has recently returned to the spotlight as a mediator in the hostage crisis between Hamas and Israel. This is due to its good relations with both Washington and Tel Aviv, as well as its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movements in the Arab world. Doha serves as the main sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. To date, Qatar has successfully facilitated the only prisoner exchange between Israel and Gaza, resulting in the release of 121 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian political prisoners. In addition, a seven-day truce was achieved, which benefited Hamas and facilitated the entry of much-needed humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

The head of the Mossad, David Barnea, reportedly met with Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani several times in Europe (in Oslo and then in Warsaw) with the mediation of the CIA. The meetings aimed at initiating a new round of negotiations for the release of additional prisoners (with 129 remaining hostages). However, the new attempt is said to have failed due to the Israeli War Cabinet’s strategic decision not to grant further ceasefires. Instead, they decided to push for an expansion of the military ground operation to include the southern part of the Gaza Strip. This decision was strongly opposed by a faction of the Israeli public, which twice took to the streets of Tel Aviv to demand the resignation of Benjamin Netanyahu and that the return of the hostages be given priority.

Qatar is emerging as one of the few potential “winners” in the ongoing war, positioning itself as the only mediator capable of achieving tangible results between the parties. The country has expressed its willingness to resume negotiations if the Israeli government changes its political stance under pressure from either its national public or the international community. The latter, however, is struggling to assert its own voice, as evidenced by the recent resolution (Res. 2720/2023) of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This resolution was intended to bring about a ceasefire, but instead only authorized the delivery of more substantial humanitarian aid to Gaza.

This is not the first time that the small Gulf emirate has acted as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 2010, it hosted a conference in Doha funded by the Qatar Foundation, that brought together regional experts as well as members of the intelligence services of the United States, Israel, and Hamas. The conference aimed at initiating political contacts that eventually led to the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held captive in Gaza since 2006. The exchange included the release of 1,024 Palestinian prisoners, contributing to one of Hamas’s most significant political and media successes among the Palestinian public.

Since then, Qatar has offered to host the Political Office of Hamas under the official pretext of keeping open indirect channels of negotiation between the United States and Hamas in times of tension in Gaza. This move was aimed at preventing the Palestinian Islamic Organization from finding hospitality elsewhere, especially among the hostile countries belonging to the “Axis of Resistance,” a composite alliance of countries (Iran and Syria under Bashar al-Assad), Shiite militias (Lebanese Hezbollah), Palestinian Islamist and non-Islamist parties (Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Islamic Jihad) in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian Shiite militias active in Iraq and Syria (Popular Mobilization Forces, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Hashd al-Shaabi, Harakat al-Nujaba, Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa al-Baqir), all coordinated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

As a result, Doha has cultivated privileged ties with key political figures in the organization, such as Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Mashaal, and Abu Marzouq, all of whom reside in Doha. Since 2016, Qatar has positioned itself as a stable financial sponsor of the Gaza government, providing 30 million dollars per month for the payment of public administration salaries, fuel, and support for the neediest families with a monthly allowance of 100 dollars each.

However, in an attempt to balance the representation of fragmented Palestinian interests, Qatar is also hosting the former Knesset member of the Palestinian nationalist Balad party, Azmi Bishara, and granting him the management of a new television network – Al Araby television network, broadcasting in Arabic from London – that is considered close to the positions of the “Axis of Resistance,” particularly Hezbollah. The aim is to counter the rival and more renowned Al Jazeera network, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and to signal a regional reach beyond the “logic of blocs.”

It is core pragmatism beyond dominant ideologies and regional alliances that is the real asset Qatar can showcase in a Middle East divided into two opposing blocs marked by the rivalry between major regional powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia. This competition has been exacerbated by the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen. Nevertheless, Qatar itself has also fueled regional conflicts since the Arab Spring, leading to the 2017 rift with the “Quartet” (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt) over its multiple attempts to interfere in the domestic affairs of other Arab countries by fueling street uprisings led by their respective Muslim Brotherhood movements.

While the diplomatic and trade rift among the Gulf states (plus Egypt) was formally mended in 2021, Qatar did not meet any of the thirteen demands made by the other Gulf states for the normalization of diplomatic relations, which included severing ties with Iran and its proxies (especially Hezbollah), ending hospitality to both Arab defectors and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated dissidents, and halting financial support to radical groups such as Daesh and even al-Qaeda. Indeed, Doha is still considered a destabilizing factor in the Syrian war, as it continues to fund Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other jihadist groups operating in the rebel-held Idlib province in the northwest of the country, which the Assad regime has been unable to retake militarily despite continuous bombardment.

In the absence of a strong US military guarantee, particularly under the Trump Administration, Riyadh’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) saw the need to put aside the decade-old rift with the Syrian regime and to overcome old regional antagonisms to offset Iran’s growing regional presence in the Middle East. The political vacuum left by the US disengagement in the region could have led the Gulf states into a direct collision with Iran, ultimately resulting in a crushing military defeat (given the Islamic Republic’s vast army’ s potential, with an estimated 534,000 active personnel). As a result, MBS changed course, gradually reconciling with Qatar in 2021 and with Tehran in March 2023. Additionally, Saudi Arabia readmitted Syria, led by Assad, to the Arab League in May 2023. This shift in approach represents a recognition of the changing geopolitical regional dynamics and the need for a more pragmatic and cooperative approach to address common challenges.

In addition, Doha’s global outreach has benefited significantly from its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The opening ceremony brought together all of the region’s major leaders, including historical rivals such as the Emir of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and the Crown Prince of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose respective emirates also benefited indirectly from the global air and tourist traffic headed to Doha. Therefore, despite the open competition between the UAE and Qatar as potential mediators in the negotiations between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, whose political representation has been hosted in Doha since 2010, the two Gulf states are less at odds with each other than expected and are both interested in attracting major global cultural, sporting and marketing events to the region.

If Qatar has regained its global reputation thanks to international events such as the FIFA World Cup, it is essential to remember that Doha remains an unscrupulous player in international relations, detached from the logic of inter-state loyalty and multilateral alliances, and continues to act as a free agent (or, if anything, aligned with Erdogan’s Turkey), lacking any normative approach in the international community. Indeed, numerous scandals broke out before the organization of the World Cup, which was at the center of a media storm over the revelation of systematic corruption practices involving members of the European Parliament (July 2022) in exchange for improving the country’s image in the European media, the boycott of a resolution critical of human rights violations against foreign workers involved in the construction of FIFA sports facilities, and a visa waiver for Qatari citizens traveling to Europe.

Nevertheless, what worries the European Union is not only Qatar’s direct interference in its internal affairs but also the indirect financing by foundations and NGOs close to the Doha government of the creation of religious associations and the opening of TV channels and mosques throughout Europe. This was revealed in the famous investigation (“Qatar papers”) on secret Doha investments in Europe, published by Michel Lafon (2019), carried out in 2018 by two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. According to their investigation, a foundation close to the Emir Al-Thani, Qatar Charity, allegedly invested more than 72 million euros in Europe over a decade (2004-2014), mainly in France and Italy: its funds were used for the construction of mosques and places of worship, as well as the establishment of higher education institutions (such as the European Institute of Human Sciences in Saint-Léger de Fougeret in France). Other projects included the construction of Islamic high schools, famous mosques such as the “Mosque of the Martyrs” in Poitiers and that of Milan, and a “religious” stadium in Lyon. The darker side of the story, however, is that all of these projects have served to spread a politicized and deeply conservative strain of Islam in Europe, with Qatar emerging as a powerful hub for radical Islamist movements. Doha’s fundamental goal seems to be to win the hearts and minds of second-generation immigrants and young Muslims in Europe, through Islamic preaching (da’wa) and charity to the poor, strengthening their religious communalism rather than stamping it out.

However, as former Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti rightly pointed out, the main argument is not so much “who is finding [mosques and institutions in Europe], but for what purpose” (interview on October 25, 2018, in “Qatar papers”). Qatar has a documented negative track record in Europe, having already contributed to the radicalization of young Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in the 1990s by funding and setting up foreign mujaheddin units alien to local Muslim culture and religious traditions. Additionally, Qatar funded religious education systems parallel to the state, making Kosovo the leading European exporter of jihadists to Syria and Iraq since 2003.

Finally, if the data contained in the inquiry published last December by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) were to be confirmed, Qatar would have also contributed millions of euros – 15 million dollars in 2012 and 50 million in 2018 respectively – to influence Israeli electoral campaigns in 2013 and 2019 in favor of the Likud party. This reveals a controversial and unexpected relationship between Doha-sponsored political Islam and the Israeli right-wing Likud party led by Netanyahu.

In the end, there is no point in blaming Qatar on moral grounds or adopting a binary (friend-enemy) logic of mutual exclusion that places Qatar on the opposite side of the barricade because of its proximity to Hamas or its support for other fundamentalist groups opposed by Western countries. On the contrary, there is a need to pragmatically assess and welcome the positive contribution that Qatar can offer in international crises, while acknowledging that Doha would stick to its own agenda, often at odds with key Western strategic interests and values.



Cover photo: Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani waves as he enters the pitch at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP.)

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