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Freeing hostages, hosting Hamas: Qatar's influence in Israel-Gaza war, explained

People walk along a street as a plume of smoke rises in the background during an Israeli strike on the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement continue.
Mahmud Hams
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AFP via Getty Images
People walk along a street as a plume of smoke rises in the background during an Israeli strike on the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement continue.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Qatar is a tiny nation that juts out of the Arabian Peninsula; it's about twice the size of Delaware, with just 300,000 citizens.

Despite its small size, Qatar's influence spreads far. It's home to the Al Jazeera news network and a sprawling U.S. airbase with U.S. troops. Last year, it hosted the World Cup soccer games.

And now it's playing a key role more than 1,000 miles to the west. It is a close U.S. ally and the regional power best positioned to both influence Hamas and play a mediating role with Israel.

The war began Oct. 7, when nearly 2,000 Hamas militants stormed into Israel, killing around 1,400 people — mostly Israeli civilians, including women and children. The militants also took an estimated 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials. A quarter of a million Israelis have evacuated their homes due to the threat of further attacks, and Gaza rocket fire on Israel continues daily, though nearly all missiles are intercepted.

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Israel's bombardment and attacks on the Gaza Strip have since killed more than 9,000 people, 70% of whom are women and children, according to Palestinian health officials in Gaza. Nearly 200,000 homes have been destroyed and the Gaza Strip's 2.3 million people are largely displaced, suffering from shortages of clean water, medicine, fuel, food and electricity.

Qatar is not directly involved in the conflict, but is no bystander either.

Here is what to know about its role in Gaza and beyond.

Yocheved Lifshitz, a freed hostage, speaks to media in front of Ichilov Hospital in Israel on Oct. 24, after she was released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip.
/ Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
Yocheved Lifshitz, a freed hostage, speaks to media in front of Ichilov Hospital in Israel on Oct. 24, after she was released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip.

Qatar's role behind the scenes

In recent weeks, Doha has helped broker the release of four Israeli hostages held by Palestinian militants. It helped to negotiate — in coordination with the U.S., Egypt, Israel and Hamas — for foreigners trapped in Gaza to leave through the territory's crossing with Egypt. Several dozen Palestinians, of more than 22,000 wounded in the war, have also been let out to receive treatment in Egypt this week, according to the Palestinian health officials.

Qatar has been able to play this role because it has hosted Hamas leaders in exile, though it's unclear whether it can keep doing so amid growing pressure from the U.S., Israel and Europe, which designate Hamas as a terrorist organization.

A Qatari official, who asked that their name not be used to discuss a sensitive issue, told NPR the Hamas political office in Doha was opened over a decade ago in coordination with the U.S., after a request from Washington to establish indirect lines of communication. Qatar says it's been used across multiple U.S. administrations for mediation efforts. The official reached out to NPR after this story was originally published.

The Biden administration and senior Israeli officials have lauded Qatar's role in trying to free more than 200 hostages, among them children and elderly, held by militants in Gaza.

Qatar has long hosted or directly talked to groups the U.S. and Europe do not want to deal with directly in difficult negotiations. That has helped Qatar exert influence, play a key role on the global stage and maintain relations with a wide range of players from Washington to Tehran.

Qatar's money trail in the Gaza Strip

For years, Qatar has helped pay the partial salaries of tens of thousands of Palestinian teachers, doctors and other public servants in the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli blockade, supported by Egypt, since Hamas wrested control of the territory in 2007.

Israeli news reports and analysts say Qatar has sent more than $1 billion to Gaza over the past decade.

Qatar sent that aid through fuel to the Gaza Strip's Hamas government, which in turn sold it and paid partial salaries. In the past, the money was sent via suitcases stuffed with cash.

Israel allowed these transfers to Hamas. Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say the payments his government approved helped keep the status quo in the Gaza Strip and Hamas from escalating attacks on Israel.

His detractors say the policy was aimed at weakening the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and perpetuating the rift between the two Palestinian factions in order to avoid engaging in a real peace process and two-state solution.

Qatar has also sent construction materials into Gaza after infrastructure was destroyed in previous Israeli wars. It also helped pay for United Nations food rations to Gaza's poorest families.

Al Jazeera and Qatar's soft power

The Qatar-based news network, primarily funded by the government, is one of the most widely seen Arabic channels in the world. It's also one of the very few broadcasting live from across the Gaza Strip throughout the current war. It's broadcasting on Arabic and English channels.

The network has long angered Israel and some Middle East governments for its alternative viewpoints on major Mideast crises, like the Arab Spring revolts. Critics say the channel promoted Islamist movements. But for hundreds of millions of homes with Arabic satellite receivers that can watch Al Jazeera, it is an indispensable source of news and information.

Israel's Cabinet recently approved measures that could lead to a shutdown of Al Jazeera's operations in the country. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly asked Qatar's emir to tone down Al Jazeera's coverage of the carnage in Gaza.

The news network and Qatar have been intertwined since the Arabic channel's launch in 1996. Qatar's then-ruler financially backed it when it launched, and it has mostly been funded by the Qatari government, which derives much of its wealth from gas exports. Its chairman is a member of Qatar's ruling family.

Al Jazeera says it operates independently.

The network's journalists have been targeted or killed while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, Shireen Abu Akleh, a longtime Palestinian American reporterand household name in the Middle East, was killed while wearing a clearly marked "press" vest in the West Bank. Israel and the U.S. say an Israeli soldier was most likely responsible for killing her.

Al Jazeera journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh attends the funeral of his wife, son and daughter, after their home was hit in the Nuseirat camp in the center of Gaza, where they had sought refuge after being displaced by the initial bombardment in their neighborhood, Oct. 26.
/ Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images
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Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images
Al Jazeera journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh attends the funeral of his wife, son and daughter, after their home was hit in the Nuseirat camp in the center of Gaza, where they had sought refuge after being displaced by the initial bombardment in their neighborhood, Oct. 26.

In recent weeks, dozens of family members of Al Jazeera's staff in Gaza have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war, including the wife, son, daughter and grandchild of Gaza correspondent Wael Dahdouh.

Qatar keeps ties with the U.S. — and its rivals

Qatar hosts thousands of U.S. troops at the Al Udeid Airbase, which also serves as the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command. Doha is paying for an expansion of that airbase, which the U.S. and others have used to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Qatar was instrumental in evacuating people from Afghanistan two years ago, during a chaotic and hurried U.S. evacuation from the country after it was taken over by the Taliban. Qatar has hosted U.S.-Taliban peace talks and other meetings, and continues to be home to members of the Taliban — and to Afghanistan-focused diplomats who withdrew from Kabul in 2021.

Doha has helped free Western hostages held by extremist groups in Syria, and recently negotiated a high-profile prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran.

The country maintains close ties with Iran, with which it shares an underwater gas field in the Persian Gulf. Iran rushed to its aid when several Arab states cut ties with Qatar for several years over its policies in the region.

President Biden designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally, elevating the security partnership even more. Late last year, his administration described Qatar as one of the United States' "closest military partners in the region" and said Qatar's efforts in Gaza had helped to stabilize the territory.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani waits for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Lusail, Qatar, on Oct. 13.
Jacquelyn Martin / POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani waits for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Lusail, Qatar, on Oct. 13.

Meanwhile, Qatar is also home to senior Hamas leaders in exile, such as Khalid Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh. It's unclear precisely how much Hamas leaders abroad knew about the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel. They've come under scrutiny for their upscale lifestyles abroad as Gazans suffer at home.

Qatar was one of the first Gulf Arab states to establish ties with Israel

Qatar, like several other Arab states, has not publicly condemned the Hamas attacks on Israel. And like other Arab states and Iran, it has blamed Israeli policies for the escalation in violence, pointing to the occupation in the West Bank, deadly raids into Palestinian cities there and allowing more Israeli hardliners into the sensitive Al Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Still, Qatar was one of the first Gulf Arab states to establish official trade ties with Israel in the 1990s. But Israel's office in Doha was permanently shuttered after Israel's war in Gaza in 2009, and now there are no official ties between Israel and Qatar.

Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani said "enough is enough" last week in a speech to his country's consultative Shura Council, describing Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip as "barbaric."

Despite this sharp rhetoric, Israel's Mossad intelligence chief was recently in Qatar to discuss the release of hostages held in Gaza.

NPR's Daniel Estrin contributed to this story from Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.