Qatar’s emerging role in Gaza and MENA humanitarian crises and conflicts
By Dr. William A. Lawrence
October 12, 2023
Over a thousand Palestinian militants invaded southern Israel on October 7, slaughtering at least 1,000 civilians of at least 23 nationalities, including at least 260 innocent revelers attending a music festival, and wounding over 5,000. In this unprecedented incursion called Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the Palestinian militants also killed 222 soldiers and 54 police and security officers. Thousands of rockets rained down on Israel. Some of these rockets penetrated the U.S.-provided Iron Dome. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad also abducted over 200 hostages of nine nationalities, threatening to kill them one-by-one if civilians in Gaza were killed “without warning.” Then an Egyptian police officer murdered Israeli tourists in the Sawari district of Alexandria. An equal number of hostages were freed by the Israeli security forces during the fight to push out the Palestinian militants out of the villages and towns. This incursion constituted the deadliest attack against Israeli civilians in 75 years.
In just over a day, Israel declared war on Hamas, the largest of about seven groups attacking it from every direction (north, south, east, and west). Within 72 hours it had struck Gaza from the air over a 1,000 times. In the first four days of bombing, Israel killed over 1,354 Palestinians, including 440 children and 250 women and shooting and killing six attackers coming from Lebanon and six protesters in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli actions injured 6,049, including 92 West Bank protesters. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza—crammed into the most densely populated region in the world sometimes referred to as an open-air prison—must “leave now.” This was virtually impossible, of course, because of closed borders mostly blockaded by Israel, which provided them zero viable alternatives, and because 60% of Gazans are descended from families irreversibly evicted from their homes in 1948 and 1967. Massive civilian casualties along with new Israeli “total” blockades of food, water, electricity and gas were identified as war crimes by Human Rights Watch and international legal experts.
Experts began to speculate how many weeks, months, or years the developing war would rage, which was difficult amid calls for revenge within the harshest response possible, tinged with elements of bigotry and even bloodlust. From the perspective of war crimes, things had already gone too far, with unacceptable violations on both sides. With tanks and armored vehicles amassing at the border, an invasion would likely provoke many more. Neither side’s war crimes justified the others’. Faulty analogies, precedents, narratives, and equivalencies nonetheless rang out as war cries. But most seasoned onlookers could agree on a few things. Impending actions would not address root causes, would not lead to sustainable solutions, and would probably over the short and long term make things palpably worse. On Day 5, reports of exchanges of mortar and rocket fire across the Syrian border meant that violence was spreading in a new direction.
As the conflict spreading to Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon was escalating, the parties and the international community were already turning to Qatar for mediation. They called on Doha not only to mediate a ceasefire, but the release of the hostages. Hamas had indicated from the beginning an interest in prisoner exchanges. Prior to this conflict, over 1,200 Palestinians were languishing in Israeli prisons without charges, in addition to over 5,200 Palestinians incarcerated, including 170 children. Over 40% of Palestinian men have spent time in Israeli prisons. By the evening of October 7, just hours into the initial Hamas-led incursion, Qatari mediators, with U.S. assistance, were leading negotiations with the parties that were characterized as “moving positively” to swap all of the women and children held hostage in Gaza for 36 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari mentioned that the three goals of the negotiations were a prisoner swap, preventing further spillover of the conflict, and an eventual ceasefire to “end the bloodshed.” (Two Egyptian security sources also reported that Egypt was also in touch with Israel and Hamas to ensure protection of hostages and prevent escalation in the fighting.) Palestinian National Council member Mustafa Barghouti then proposed a two-step hostage for prisoner swap: civilian women and children at first, followed by Israeli soldiers for Palestinian men. Barghouti claimed that the swap could end the fighting “in 24-36 hours.” While this prospect was unlikely given the escalating conflict and the bellicose rhetoric on both sides, the likelihood of short- and long-term Qatari mediation between the warring parties remains high with some degree of success possible.
Qatar the “go-to” mediator
This current initiative follows a long series of Qatari mediations with varying degrees of success. Most recently, Doha brokered the September 2023 deal between the United States and Iran after a year of talks, for which Qatar, as reported on National Public Radio on September 20, had to intervene to remove financial obstacles neither the U.S. nor Iran was willing to be seen taking on. In late September, Qatar replaced France at the main mediator in the Lebanese political crisis. Now considered a “go-to” country for “non-stop” mediation, Qatar’s long list of mediations, with varying degrees of success, include Lebanon (2008), Yemen (2007-08, 2010), Darfur (2008-10), Chad-Sudan (2009), Eritrea-Djibouti (2010), Palestine (Fatah-Hamas, 2006, 2012), Hamas-Israel (2020, 2022), Somalia-Kenya (2021), Chad (2022), U.S.-Taliban (2014-2021), Afghanistan (2021), and U.S.-Venezuela (2023), among others.
Why Qatar? There are many reasons for Qatar’s emerging role as a go-to mediator in regional and global conflicts, but among them are: 1) Qatar’s strategy of friendly relations not only with nearly all states, but also most non-state actors, including actors and insurgencies like the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, including Hamas; 2) the Gulf emirate’s strong relationships with global and regional (often hegemonic) actors like the United States, the EU, the AU, Japan, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran; 3) Qatar’s ability to back up its mediation efforts with subsequent diplomatic, geopolitical, logistical, and financial support, especially in post-conflict settings; 4) the country’s extraordinarily high per capital wealth and low internal opposition; 5) Qatar’s high quality training of its diplomats and extraordinary development of its own analytical capacity and networks through mechanisms like the Doha Forum; 6) Doha’s increasing independence from Riyadh, accelerated by Saudi Arabia’s 2017-21 blockade; and 7) the powerful role of Al Jazeera, the leading media outlet in the Arab and Muslim world, which the power to affect perceptions and narratives of war and peace.
Qatar: The preferred humanitarian
Often overlooked is Qatar’s emerging role in post-disaster humanitarian relief. Just one month ago, devastating natural disasters in Morocco and Libya transformed parts of North Africa into two large disaster areas, which, notwithstanding valiant civilian and governmental relief efforts, caused widespread human suffering and introduced factors for further regional destabilization. Morocco’s strongest earthquake in over a century struck the High Atlas region southwest of Marrakech late at night, when most people were sleeping, killing over 3,000 people; 50,000 homes for at least 300,000 people in thousands of villages were either damaged or destroyed. Libya’s deadliest flood in its recorded history occurred just three days later when an unusually severe climate-change-supercharged storm caused two improperly maintained dams to crumble, which catastrophically flattened and washed away about a quarter of the coastal city of Derna, killing between 4,000 and 11,000 people, with over 8,500 still missing and over 46,000 displaced. Over 1500 buildings were damaged, of which nearly 900 were “obliterated.”
Qatar is playing one of the leading roles in relief and reconstruction efforts in both of those countries for a variety of reasons. Qatar was one of only four countries that Morocco officially permitted to participate in rescue and relief efforts by twelve days into the crisis, among over fifty countries and the United Nations that offered assistance. Qatar therefore had a relatively larger than usual role to play, sending significant humanitarian supplies, personnel, and search-and-rescue trucks and other vehicles. Moroccan rejections of French and Algerian aid poised at airports generated extraordinary amounts of speculation (although some French assistance was eventually permitted to enter). While Morocco and most of the countries whose aid was not accepted insisted that the decisions were logistical and not political, the relief and recovery needs in Morocco far exceeded those accepted, increasing the initial and downstream burden on Qatar and the other preferred countries approved to assist.
Meanwhile, Qatar was one of roughly a dozen countries to send planeloads of assistance to Libya. Qatari aid included food, relief supplies, a field hospital, and medical equipment. Qatar Charity launched a sophisticated “Libya Appeal” to raise more funds for tents, blankets, medical and heating supplies, and food. Although the main target of this appeal was wealthy Qatari citizens—dubbed “benefactors of Qatar”—it was clear from the messages and website design that they were seeking donations from anywhere in the world. Qatar’s emergence not just as a governmental financier of disaster relief, but also as mobilizer of human expertise and material and financial resources, including non-governmental, is something to notice.
Qatar’s changing approach
Just prior to these twin disasters, Qatar had been approached and had announced it was “ready” to mediate between Morocco and Algeria, which severed relations in 2021. One Middle East Monitor report (which did not elicit denials) revealed that secret negotiations had already begun. It is important to note that in the past, even recently, Saudi Arabia has been the more active mediator in Algerian-Moroccan relations than Qatar, most notably in 1988 but with more recent efforts in 2022 and 2023 in connection to attendance and conduct at Arab League summits.
In North Africa, Qatar had been playing a more partisan role between 2011 and 2015, choosing sides in Arab Spring revolutions and conflicts in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, including participation in the 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya. For a variety of reasons, including the civil wars in Syria (2011-), Yemen (2014-), and Libya (2014-) and counter-revolutionary coups and coup attempts in Egypt (2013), Libya (2014, 2019), and Tunisia (2021), Qatar shifted its posture in 2015, seeking once again more neutral, mediating roles. At the same time, it began to play a growing leadership role in addressing and alleviating human suffering caused by post-Arab-Spring turbulence and other occurrences, including natural disasters.
But following this shift beginning in 2015, perhaps accelerated by the four-country blockade of Qatar from 2017 to 2021, it is wrong to see Doha as simply having reverted to its pre-2011 posture. The gas-wealthy country’s regional and global role has gone considerably further. Qatar in fact is combining a reversion to aspects of its pre-2011, less partisan posture with a new level of global leadership and status as a favored mediator and humanitarian actor of both first and last resort.