Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 31 October 2023


A U.S. Ultimatum for Qatar: Stop Sheltering Hamas


Qatar has long been sympathetic to Hamas. When the group won elections in 2006 and Israel and the U.S. subsequently cut off financial support to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, Qatar vowed to provide aid. In 2009, two years after the group forcibly took over Gaza, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal praised Qatar for its support, which at the time reportedly included millions of dollars a month.

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As the Syrian civil war stressed Bashar Al-Assad’s relationship with Hamas, the terror group sought to move its political office—a hub for raising funds and coordinating with sponsors—out of Damascus. Qatar rolled out the red carpet. Doha claims the Obama administration asked it to do so—if true, a misguided policy, and one that should be squarely repudiated in the wake of the Oct. 7 atrocities.

The U.S. designated Hamas a terror group in 1997, effectively cutting direct communication with its leaders. By giving the group real estate in Doha, the Qataris enabled a new indirect channel for talks. Since then, Qatar has reportedly provided hundreds of millions of dollars to help Hamas make payroll, deliver social services and generate additional revenue by selling off imported fuel.

For more than a decade some policy makers in Washington and Jerusalem believed Qatar could help moderate Hamas and facilitate a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. The savage killing of more than 1,400 Jews disproved that thesis. Qatar’s support of Hamas hasn’t led to the group’s moderation. It’s past time to stop pretending otherwise.

With America’s apparent blessing, Qatar continues to act as if it’s Oct. 6: It has kept Hamas’s office in Doha open and on Oct. 14 hosted a meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. Now it’s asserting itself as the only viable interlocutor to negotiate the release of hostages from Gaza. Meantime, the Qatar-funded TV network Al Jazeera serves as the tip of the spear in Hamas’s propaganda campaign, promoting, among other things, the lie that Israel attacked a hospital in Gaza.

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Like the arsonist playing firefighter, Doha claims it can be an honest broker in any hostage negotiation, as if the premise of such deliberations doesn’t work to Hamas’s advantage. Recall that Qatar brokered the Biden administration’s recent $6 billion hostage deal with Iran, doubtless a desired model among Hamas’s leaders.

The Qataris’ claim that the West still needs a channel to Hamas should be met with the same hostility that a Swiss banker would meet in 1939 trying to justify continued support to Nazi Germany. Every move Hamas makes today is calculated to win its survival. The operation via Qatar is aimed at pulling on American and Israeli heart strings and undermining Israel’s military operations while creating opportunities to showcase Hamas as humanitarian, not barbaric. This process also buys time for Iran to escalate conflict in other arenas, such as Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Yemen, as the prospect of releasing hostages forces Israel to temper its designs on Gaza.

An alternative strategy could be more successful and less distasteful: Let Qatar know it will be held responsible for the deaths of any additional hostages. The U.S. holds enormous leverage to squeeze Hamas and Qatar to win the release of captives without empowering the terror group or allowing its control of Gaza to endure.

Another tactic: Drop Qatar’s status as a major non-NATO ally and designate the country a state sponsor of terrorism, either by executive order or legislation. Congress could also allow victims of Hamas terrorism to sue Qatar and seize its assets in the U.S. It might go further by mandating that the U.S. Air Force leave the Al Udeid Air Base.

Mr. Biden could also take advantage of the presence of Hamas leaders in Doha by making clear they will be legitimate military targets as long as Hamas holds hostages. Al Udeid has plenty of armed drones that could be brought into action. That threat must be coupled with another understanding: Washington won’t grant any special favors merely for winning the release of hostages. Already, more than 30 Americans are dead.

Israel’s goal is Hamas’s destruction. If the U.S. shares that goal, it can’t tolerate other nations giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Washington must use its leverage to end Doha’s support for Hamas and win the release of every hostage.

Mr. Goldberg, a former National Security Council official and U.S. Senate aide, is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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