In these past few days, Doha has been busy engaging a host of various regional and international actors as part of urgent diplomatic efforts to de-escalate violence between Hamas and Israel, but Qatar’s diplomatic work will likely be challenging in the face of this unprecedented flare up, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
On October 7, Hamas launched Operation al-Aqsa Flood. This unprecedented incursion by the armed wing of Hamas, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, went as far as 15 miles into Israel-proper. In response to this surprise attack, which resulted in the highest Israeli death toll in decades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government declared all-out war on Hamas and greenlit “significant military steps” in response to this act of Palestinian resistance.
Now the world nervously waits to see the horror that comes next. It seems reasonable to take for granted that Israel’s response will be far more deadly than Tel Aviv’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge, which resulted in 2,000 deaths—including at least 500 children—and 10,000 injuries on the Palestinian side. Israel’s war declaration and “unprecedented mobilisation” of troops suggest that an Israeli ground assault into Gaza is imminent.
The Israelis attempting to restore their ground occupation of Gaza, which ended in the mid-2000s, could lead to many scenarios. These pertain to the real possibilities of violence spreading to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah opening up a northern front.
One key question to ask is, how would Iran and Arab states in the region respond? Another is, if Israel becomes bogged down in a bloody conflict waged on multiple fronts, how many Israeli military casualties would the Netanyahu government and Israeli public consider bearable?
Responses from Arab Gulf states
Already the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have responded with repeated condemnation of the Israeli occupation, which all Arab states view as a major source of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
The Qatari and Saudi foreign ministries put out similar statements. The statement from Doha only held Israel responsible for the escalating violence, while also calling on both sides to demonstrate restraint and the international community to thwart the Israelis from using Operation al-Aqsa Flood as a justification for waging brutal warfare against civilians in Gaza.
“Qatar will make certain that its response is largely in line with that of the rest of the Arab world. In the past, in similar circumstances, Qatar has expressed its agreement with the so-called ‘Arab consensus,’” said Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar, in an interview with Doha News.
“This time also, Qatar is unlikely to be too out of step with the rest of the Arab world. Already, at the official level, Qatar has condemned the violence and has called for de-escalation. Unlike the UAE, however, Qatar is unlikely to condemn Hamas, and the government has already allowed informal expressions of support for Hamas to take place in schools and elsewhere in the country,” added Dr. Kamrava.
It is important to see Doha’s response to this recent escalation of violence within the context of Qatar’s role as a diplomatic bridge between Israel and the US, on one side, and Hamas and Iran, on the other. In the past, Doha has successfully leveraged its good relationships with these different actors to help facilitate negotiations that produced positive results, including past Hamas-Israel ceasefires and the recent Iran-US prisoner exchange.
“Qatar brings unique experience and capabilities to mediating the current crisis. Its consistent advocacy for Palestinian rights, trusted ties across the region, and global relationships position Doha well for impactful diplomacy,” Dr. Steven Wright, Associate Professor of International Relations at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, told Doha News.
A chance for Qatari diplomacy?
At this particular moment, Doha is focused on preventing the fighting between Hamas and Israel from spiralling further out of control which is unfortunately a very real possibility—perhaps an inevitability.
According to a Xinhua report citing a Hamas source, Qatar is also mediating an urgent prisoner swap between the movement and Israel that would see the release of Israeli women captured by Hamas in exchange for all 36 Palestinian female prisoners in Israeli prisons.
“Qatar firmly believes further violence only breeds more violence. Qatar is responding to this dangerous escalation with grave concern and a sense of urgency,” explained Dr. Wright.
“Through proactive diplomacy at the highest levels, it is clear that Qatar is focused on achieving an immediate de-escalation needed to protect civilians and create hope that the parties can return to meaningful negotiations toward the only viable solution – two states for two peoples. It is clear that Qatar remains unwavering in its commitment to facilitate the dialogue and understanding necessary for a lasting two-state resolution based on relevant UN resolutions,” added Dr. Wright.
In these past few days, Doha has been busy engaging a host of various regional and international actors. Since October 7, the Qatari leadership has discussed this escalating violence with high-ranking officials in Egypt, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the UAE, and the U.S. But Qatar’s diplomatic work will be challenging. This is especially so within the context of deadly and unprecedented events which have unfolded in recent days.
“The serious escalation by Hamas means it may be difficult for Doha to leverage the relationships it has built in Gaza while the fighting continues, although we saw back in 2014 how Qatari officials coordinated closely with Turkish and US counterparts to keep open channels of communication that eventually helped facilitate an end to that round of fighting, but this time might be more challenging, given the scale and intensity of what has happened,” said Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, in an interview with Doha News.
Indeed, an unfortunate fact is that most likely any useful diplomacy will probably only have a de-escalating impact after the violence drastically worsens. As Kamrava put it, “I sincerely doubt…that Netanyahu’s domestic political predicament would enable him to respond to the Hamas attack in any way other than inflicting massive damage on Palestinian lives and property.”
Despite such challenges, there is good reason to maintain some cautious optimism about Qatar’s ability to play a useful diplomatic role in this crisis, at least at some point later on. This is “very realistic” to imagine because Doha “highlights the root causes of the problem, asserts the needs for a sustainable solution, and calls on the involved parties to de-escalate and practice self-restraint,” Dr. Ali Bakir, professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center, told Doha News.
“Regardless of how the current war will end…at the end of the day two parties will negotiate an agreement. In this sense, goodwill efforts to de-escalate the situation and stop the war [are] always welcomed. Qatar, with its proactive foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives is well positioned to assist in achieving this goal and stands ready to play an effective mediatory role,” added Dr. Bakir.
Other experts agree that Doha playing a mediating role between Hamas and Israel amid this current crisis is conceivable. “Qatar is one of the few countries that has had diplomatic relations with Hamas, and has had a history of successfully dispensing economic aid in Gaza,” commented Dr. Kamrava. “It has also had previous informal relations with Israel, and on a number of occasions it has proven to the United States that it is an honest broker.”
However, it is not possible for Qatar all on its own to freeze this conflict between Hamas and Israel. It will be necessary for Doha to work with many capitals in the region and beyond while coordinating closely with a handful of them.
“Although no one country can single-handedly produce a ceasefire, but by leveraging its experience, good offices, and channels of communication, Qatar can significantly contribute to multilateral efforts focused on immediate de-escalation as a first step to resume serious negotiations for lasting peace which the international community has committed to,” said Dr. Wright.
“The onus is now on the international community to find a way for a lasting solution to be achieved.”