Qatar, the energy-rich Middle East emirate, is emerging as both the U.S.’s partner and potential antagonist as Israel escalates its war against the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Friday in Doha and lauded his government for seeking to broker the release of hostages Hamas is holding in the Gaza Strip and working to prevent the conflict there from spreading to other regional fronts.
“We’re…working intensively together to secure the release of hostages, including American citizens, being held by Hamas,” Blinken said. “I’m grateful for the urgency that Qatar is bringing to this effort.”
But Blinken tempered his praise by telling reporters in Qatar that the Mideast’s leaders needed to understand that they can no longer conduct “business as usual” with Hamas.
Qatar allows the Palestinian group to maintain a political office in Doha and is a base for many of its top officials, including overall leader, Ismail Haniyeh. Qatar also owns the Al Jazeera media network, headquartered in Doha, which often serves as a platform for Hamas to rally its supporters against Israel. Since the attack, some members of Congress have demanded that Qatar immediately hand over Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders and shut down their operations.
“I’ve also been making it clear in all of my conversations throughout this trip that there can be no more business as usual with Hamas,” Blinken said. “Murdering babies, burning families to death, taking little children as hostages. These are unconscionable acts of brutality.”
Qatar hasn’t sought to position itself as a neutral arbiter after Hamas attacked southern Israel last Saturday and killed at least 1,200 Israelis. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement holding Israel “solely responsible” for the carnage and pressed the international community “to compel Israel to cease its blatant violation of international law.”
Hamas has also continued to use Qatar this week as a base from which to incite its followers to fight Israel. Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s former top leader, issued an audio statement to Reuters on Wednesday calling for a wider war on Israel.
“Tribes of Jordan, sons of Jordan, brothers and sisters of Jordan... This is a moment of truth and the borders are close to you, you all know your responsibility,” Meshaal said.
Qatar has unique influence and sway over U.S. defense and foreign policy, which will make it difficult for the Biden administration to break with Doha over its relations with Hamas.
The Pentagon has based extensive military assets at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base going back to 2001 and the attacks of 9/11. Successive U.S. administrations have launched air operations from Qatar against Al Qaeda and ISIS targets and conducted other offensive missions into Syria and Iraq. Last year, the Biden administration designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally for its assistance during the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The U.S. has also repeatedly relied on Qatari diplomas to serve as backchannels to governments and terrorist organizations that Washington can’t negotiate with directly. In recent months, Doha helped broker a prisoner-swap between the U.S. and Iran, which included Qatar helping to disburse $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues to Tehran. That transfer is now in doubt due to Iran’s support for Hamas and questions about Tehran’s direct role in planning the attack on Israel.
Before this week’s conflict, Israel also allowed Qatar to disburse humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, utilizing Doha’s relationship with Hamas.
As Blinken hinted at Friday, though, this arrangement is set to change. A growing number of U.S. lawmakers in Congress are pressing the Biden administration to pressure Qatar to shut down Hamas’s office and hand over Ismail Haniyeh and other leaders to the U.S. or Israel to face trial. White House national security council spokesman, John Kirby, said Friday that 27 Americans were killed during the Hamas assault last weekend, and 14 remain missing.
“Qatar is harboring mass murderers who just orchestrated a terrorist attack that killed at least two dozen Americans and was the largest single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Semafor in a statement. “The Biden administration should immediately ensure that Qatar turns over the Hamas leaders it is harboring, or Congress will make the administration do it.”
The View From Doha
Qatari leaders have offered no signs that they’d be prepared to evict Hamas’s leadership or hand them over for trial. And the country’s prime minister on Friday defended hosting Hamas’s political offices, arguing it was a channel through which to stabilize the region. “This was started to be used as a way of communicating and bringing peace and calm into the region, not to instigate any war,” Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said at the press conference with Blinken. “And this is the purpose of that office.”
He added that he believed Qatar’s efforts to broker the release of hostages being held in the Gaza Strip would bear fruit in the coming days. “I think that the progress will be determined in the next few days hopefully, and we will see if there will be a positive prospect for that,” the prime minister said.