Qatar, alongside Egypt, has been at the forefront of mediating between Israel, the United States, and Hamas, with four hostages successfully freed so far.
A top Qatari official said negotiations designed to de-escalate the war in Gaza have continued despite Israeli bombardments posing an obstacle to discussions, warning the world cannot afford to give up, as the death toll surpassed 8,000.
Qatari foreign ministry spokesman, Dr Majed Al Ansari on Saturday told CNN that talks aimed at releasing captives as part of a possible prisoner exchange have not collapsed, though said the delicate situation requires a period of calm.
On Friday, Israel enforced a communications blackout in Gaza before launching its heaviest bombardment since the start of the weeks-long war, pushing the death toll beyond 8,000, nearly half of which children.
“This escalation makes it considerably more difficult,” Al Ansari stated in an interview with CNN.
“This escalation that is happening right now, one of the most terrible escalations that have happened in the region for a really long time is making it [the talks] certainly more difficult,” he said.
“On the logistical side of it, just moving people during a landing incursion and the increased bombardment, but also from a political side of course, mediation only works when you have calming periods. Under this kind of conflict, this kind of confrontation between both sides, it becomes more difficult but it is still ongoing and we can’t give up.”
“We can’t give up on this on all sides. No body in the region can afford to give up on this and just leave it to the military people to decide what happens in the future,” Al Ansari noted.
Qatar has been engaging in behind-the-scenes diplomacy for over three weeks, holding discussions with both Hamas officials to mediate and facilitate the release of over 200 captives currently held by the resistance group and other armed groups in Gaza.
The Gulf nation has built a solid reputation as a mediator over the years that has spearheaded the release of hostages and prisoners by world powers.
Just last week, Qatar’s mediation resulted in the release of two American hostages, a mother and daughter, as well as two other elderly Israeli women. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced intense pressure from the families of the captives, many of whom have demanded the regime accept a prisoner swap deal proposed by Hamas.
The Palestinian faction has said the full release of captives held by the group will only materialise if Israel reciprocated by freeing all Palestinian prisoners.
“The large number of enemy prisoners we have is the price of emptying all prisons of all [Palestinian] prisoners,” he insisted. Currently, Israel imprisons around 1,264 Palestinian administrative detainees, 5,200 political prisoners, 33 women, and 170 children.
Hamas also said while the group came close to an agreement with Tel Aviv concerning the captives, Israel had “stalled” on the matter.
“Communication happened in regards to the prisoners’ file and there was an opportunity to reach an agreement, but the enemy was stalling,” the spokesperson for the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades Abu Ubaida said in a televised speech on Al-Aqsa TV on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Palestinian health ministry confirmed the death toll from the weeks-long Israeli war on the besieged Gaza Strip, home to more than 2.3 million Palestinians, had surpassed 8,000. With nearly half of those killed being children, world leaders, rights groups and protesters around the world have called for an urgent ceasefire to stop the bloodshed.
Gaza’s government media office disclosed last week that Israel has dropped an alarming 12,000 tonnes of explosives on the Strip since the conflict began, a weight comparable to the nuclear bomb the United States deployed on Hiroshima in 1945.
In Doha, Qatari officials have rallied to de-escalate the crisis and warned of a pending catastrophe is Israel goes ahead with its planned invasion on the Gaza Strip.
“We’ve seen escalations in South Lebanon, we’ve seen escalations in Syria, the West Bank, and this will lead to something on the regional perspective that we can’t afford,” Al Ansari said.
“This is why, from our perspective as Qatar, this is the dividend for peace that we have to pay, which is finding ways to have the difficult discussions with the difficult sides and making sure that everybody understands that great leaders are not those who just react to the conflict on the ground, but those who make the difficult discussions, the difficult decision that are not always popular to go towards peace.”
Since taking on the mediating role, Qatar has faced scrutiny for hosting a Hamas political office. Qatari officials maintain this allows for direct line of communication with Hamas that is crucial for de-escalation purposes.
“Since 2006 we’ve been approached by various sides to open this channel communication and since then along with, in 2012 the [Hamas] political office moving to Doha, this channel has been very instrumental in countless de-escalations that took place, including one that happened on the 28th of September this year, so just days before this recent escalation,” Al Ansari states.
“Therefore, as long as this channel is useful in creating peace, we have to have it, we can’t afford to lose it. It is now useful during this escalation. It is the only way that we are mediating for the release of these hostages and for them to get back to their families.”
During the same interview, Al Ansari said his country is “appalled” by comments from the Israeli foreign minister accusing Qatar of funding Hamas.
“We are absolutely appalled by these accusations held towards Qatar and especially when they come from the Israeli side when they’ve been working with us on this mediation right now and on many de-escalations in the past. This is not the first time that we engage them as mediators and it’s not the first time that they engage us as mediators,” he said.
“And countless times before, they made the request for us to mediate for de-escalations with Hamas in Gaza. [Hamas office in Doha] It’s a communication channel they know about, they are working with us on. And the aid that goes into Gaza goes through the Israeli side.”
“Therefore we find this very surprising and we categorically deny these accusations and I believe that the contradicting statements by different Israeli officials makes it very clear that this issue is part of only political rhetoric and political polarisation and it’s not about the reality of the relationship we have,” he added.