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Israel-Hamas War: Qatar’s foreign policy balancing act pays off

The militant group took an estimated 240 hostages back into the Gaza Strip

Israel-Hamas War: Qatar’s foreign policy balancing act pays off

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The announcement of a possible “humanitarian pause” in the Gaza Strip can be considered a triumph for the small Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. Early on Wednesday morning, the Qatari Foreign Ministry put out a statement announcing a four day “pause” during which all sides — the Israeli military, the militant Hamas group and Hezbollah’s armed wing in Lebanon — would agree to stop fighting. This would allow for the release of 50 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, in exchange for the release of around 150 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. It would also allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.

The militant group took an estimated 240 hostages back into the Gaza Strip. Since the attack, Israel has been bombing the around-360-square-kilometre enclave and has also prevented most water, food, fuel and medical supplies from entering.

In the past six weeks, 13,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory. The hostage negotiations have been going on for weeks. At one stage, the Israeli government reportedly turned down a similar offer in favour of launching its ground offensive into Gaza. However, pressure has grown — from the international community, from Israel’s major ally, the US, and from the families of hostages who have demanded that their government focus on freeing their relatives.

Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and shares a border with Israel and Gaza, has also helped in the negotiations. But it is Qatar that is seen as leading them. After the Qatari announcement, US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken posted messages on X (formerly Twitter) thanking Egypt and Qatar for their “critical partnership” in the negotiations.

Previously even Israel’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi had praised Qatar’s role, writing on social media that, “Qatar’s diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time.” But not everyone is so pleased with the small Gulf state. Some commentators said negotiators should have tried harder to secure the release of more hostages. Others argued that because Qatar has been home to Hamas’ political leadership since 2012, it was somehow complicit in Hamas’ attacks. Qatar has regularly said it supports the “Palestinian cause.”

Experts agree that Qatar is walking a fine line when it comes to its foreign policy, playing the “Switzerland of the Middle East” and keeping doors open to all comers. “Qatar’s role is particularly sensitive because the emirate has been relying on being an intermediary for well over two decades now,” Guido Steinberg, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW recently. In the past, Qatar has also acted as an interlocutor between the international community and the Taliban in Afghanistan (who also have political offices in Doha), between the US and Iran, and even Russia and Ukraine. It also hosts the largest US military headquarters in the Middle East, al-Udeid Air Base, which played a significant role in evacuations from Afghanistan in 2021. This led to Qatar being described as a “major non-NATO ally.”

The country has also already mediated between Israel and Hamas — such as during the 2014 Israel-Gaza War. Qatar froze relations with Israel in 2009 but allegedly maintains a relationship behind the scenes. In 1996, at a time when other countries in the region were firmly opposed to any ties at all with Israel, Qatar allowed the state to open a trade mission in Doha.

DW Bureau
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