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A top Qatari official discusses why Gaza is a policy priority

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Qatar is a close ally of the U.S., but the Gulf Arab country also gets a lot of criticism for hosting the political leaders of Hamas who live there. The tightrope walk helps make Qatar a player in talks for another pause in the war in Gaza, like the one last month that allowed for the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian detainees. NPR's Aya Batrawy spoke with an official in Qatar about the ties to Hamas, a group the U.S. can't ignore but doesn't want to speak directly with either.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: I meet Qatar's foreign ministry spokesperson, Majed al-Ansari, in Qatar's capital, Doha, as his country's mediating once again between Hamas and Israel.

MAJED AL-ANSARI: We haven't stopped working. Our negotiators understand that every delay is lives lost on both sides.

BATRAWY: Qatar's capital is a city of high-rise towers and manmade islands that provide safe haven for shadowy figures, ranging from senior Taliban to Hamas leaders in exile. Closed-circuit cameras keep watch over the city. Hamas set up here in 2006, when the Bush administration asked if Qatar would host the group's exiled leadership after it won elections in the Gaza Strip. Al-Ansari says successive White House administrations, right through Biden's, have used this backchannel to their advantage to deal with the group they can't ignore but don't want to speak with directly.

AL-ANSARI: Unless this channel of communication was active, the only thing we were looking towards is the abyss, is war.

BATRAWY: Qatar has drawn praise, but also criticism, including from some in Congress, over its policy of talking to groups the U.S. wants to isolate. And a few years ago, neighbors like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states cut diplomatic relations with Qatar because of its ties with Iran and Islamist groups in the region. The U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization and Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and go after its leadership wherever it is, raising the stakes for Qatar even more. But as Qatar sees it, Hamas is still around, and this backchannel remains useful and could be even after this war.

AL-ANSARI: It is too early to take any decisions on severing relations or severing this channel of communication. But everything on the ground, as I said, is very fluid and we have to wait and see what happens.

BATRAWY: Analysts say this high-stakes policy has also been useful to Qatar's interests, giving this small but wealthy country international clout. And its ties to groups like Hamas and other offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood are a card Qatar can play. James Dorsey, an honorary fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, explains.

JAMES DORSEY: They're not ideologically bound to Hamas, which is the implication of some of the criticism. I think they recognized early on that - and were right - basically that Hamas was a player and that you had to deal with it, and that's now paying off.

BATRAWY: But Qatar's most important ally is the U.S. It has spent billions on U.S. military hardware and to host thousands of American troops at a sprawling airbase. Here's al-Ansari again.

AL-ANSARI: We believe in the strategic side of that relationship. And part of our relationship with the U.S. is based on this frank discussion. We don't cater to whatever the administration wants to hear, we tell them exactly what we think.

BATRAWY: And with Israel, Qatar doesn't have formal ties, but the two have long coordinated on Gaza. Qatar's foreign ministry tells NPR the country has spent $4.1 billion over the past decade to support the Gaza Strip. Some flowed through the United Nations, like cash aid to poor families, and some was carried into Gaza in bags of cash to pay the salaries of teachers and doctors. Al-Ansari says this was all done through Israel.

AL-ANSARI: We were fitting the bill on Israel's behalf here gladly because this was helping people. And it was helping the cause of peace altogether.

BATRAWY: The money helped keep Gaza from collapsing. Some in Israel now say it kept Hamas afloat and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did this to weaken Hamas' rival, the Palestinian Authority. In any case, al-Ansari says Qatar's mediation efforts won't stop.

AL-ANSARI: And we will continue to do that regardless of the cost on our image and reputation, because we believe that at the end, people do see and understand how important this role is because we're having the discussions that the political calculation of others don't allow them to do.

BATRAWY: But he cautions, Qatar isn't going to pick up the tab in Gaza for the destruction left by Israel's war this time, not before there's a path for Palestinian statehood and peace.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Doha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.