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Qatar's prime minister warns an intolerable Gaza situation poses regional risk

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, attends a news conference about the Israel-Hamas war.
Jacquelyn Martin
/
AP
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, attends a news conference about the Israel-Hamas war.

Updated January 31, 2024 at 10:38 AM ET

It was a high-stakes trip to Washington D.C. for Qatar's Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani this week. His country is trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas that would see an end to fighting, at least temporarily.

Any agreement would bring the release of at least some of the 136 remaining hostages taken from Israel during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. It would also bring some respite to trapped civilians in Gaza living under bombardment and get badly needed aid to a man-made humanitarian disaster zone.

After announcing a framework that Hamas is now reviewing, Al Thani sat down with Morning Edition host Leila Fadel.

"I think that we should all unite behind stopping this war, saving those lives, saving those children and those women from being killed and being chased and bombed by airstrikes, by tanks, by everything," Al Thani said.

He warned that if the conflict between Israel and Hamas doesn't stop soon, the risks of regional war only grow.

Al Thani's visit came at a particularly dangerous moment. The U.S. is figuring out how to respond to the killing of three of its reservists in a drone strike in Jordan. The U.S. blamed an Iran-backed militia. Iran backs several armed groups in the region, including Hamas, that have been striking Israel, U.S. outposts and ships in the Red Sea in protest, they've said, of Israel's response to the Hamas attack.

Qatar is a tiny nation in the Persian Gulf that has outsized influence derived from its wealth, the state-funded and popular satellite news channel Al Jazeera and through its role as regional mediator. Qatar has friendly ties with parties and nations who won't speak to each other. It's an ally to the U.S., which backs Israel, and Iran, which backs Hamas. It also speaks to Hamas at the behest of the U.S.

It's used its role as mediator to get other hard deals done. It negotiated a hostage exchange deal between Iran and the U.S., it negotiated with the Taliban and mediated a deal with Russia to bring home kidnapped Ukrainian children.

But in this case, Al Thani made it clear he doesn't know when a breakthrough between Israel and Hamas might come.

"It all depends on both parties," he said. "Our aim is to finish this as soon as possible and to bring the hostages back, but to put a closure for the war as well."

He adds Qatar's mediating has gotten results that fighting has not, including the release of over 100 hostages.

"The process has proven successful. The military operation didn't do it. It was the contrary, actually. It killed some of them," Al Thani said.

This conversation with Qatar's Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Al Jassim Thani has excerpts that were not part of the broadcast version. It has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Is a deal really possible, especially knowing that Israel is asking for a 45-day pause and Hamas wants an end to the war and the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Is a deal possible with this kind of daylight between the two?

We are in a stage where we have an agreed framework with the Israelis and now, it's being presented to Hamas. So we are waiting for the responses and we are hoping for indirect negotiations in the coming days in order to go through the details. Right now, of course, we cannot predict that. It will all depend on both parties, how they are going to agree to the details. Our aim is to finish this as soon as possible and to vote, so to bring the hostages back, but to put a closure for the war as well. I think the framework that Qatar has suggested was based on a proposal that was presented by the Israelis and the counter proposal by Hamas. We blended both together and we came up with this framework, which we are hoping will become acceptable as well to Hamas to move forward with it.

You don't see this in days or in the next week? Some type of ceasefire and return of hostages?

Sometimes the negotiations can surprise us and can finish in days, but some other times we get stuck into details and it all depends on how the atmosphere will be on the two sides.

We're speaking at a time of extremely heightened tensions after a drone strike that killed three U.S. servicemen, wounded many others. How is that impacting negotiations and what are your concerns for the region as the U.S. mulls how to respond to that drone attack?

First of all, I'd like to express my condolences for the loss of the U.S. soldiers and for their families. The situation in the region is just stirring up and we've seen the provocations happening everyday and building up. We warned that the situation would be exploited by others, that it might stir up the region, and might lead us to a wider regional war. That's what we've been preventing, talking to everyone in order to de-escalate and to contain the situation. Is it impacting the negotiation directly? It's not. We are hoping that everything gets contained as soon as possible. We understand that loss. And of course, the U.S. has the right to decide on the way to retaliate. But, let's hope that we have cooler heads ahead of us and don't get out of control.

For a lot of Americans. They don't understand Qatar's support for Hamas. If you could talk about why Qatar has been the home for Hamas officials and has had the support of Qatar?

Well Qatar actually supports peace. It supports the Palestinian people to live in dignity. We don't support Hamas or any political factions over there. In fact, Qatar's [financial] support goes to the Palestinians. Fifty five percent of that support went to the West Bank and 45 percent went to Gaza and it went directly to the people. It has nothing to do with any political party over there. The Hamas office in Doha, when it was established, happened in coordination with the U.S. and it was for a purpose. This presence has served this purpose throughout the years. Different wars and different conflicts, different escalations. Many of them were seen, but a lot more were contained from a very early stage. It's been serving that purpose and Qatar has said it has been serving as a communication channel between a lot of parties: Hamas, Taliban and others. So, it's part of our role as mediators. Unfortunately, this is being misused against us in many ways. Everytime there's a loss, they try to play the blame game against Qatar. It will discourage any other country from stepping up and playing a role in restoring peace and stability in our region. His Highness, the Emir, has been repeatedly saying to us, just ignore the noise and focus on your objective. If we are saving lives, that will be enough for us.

On that note, Israel's far right wing finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said Qatar "encourages terrorism, finances, terrorism, pushes terror and is playing a double game." Leaked audio from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Qatar problematic and said that your country is failing to use the leverage you have over Hamas since Qatar houses and funds them according to this leak. If you could respond to these remarks, including from a minister that's seen as quite extreme.

I won't bother commenting on the irresponsible remarks you have just mentioned, but the premise of funding Hamas is totally rejected. And it's been clear from day one the way we are funding was happening under [Netanyahu's] watch and under his government's watch. And it's a very legitimate, transparent process that goes directly to the people and is verified by the U.N. I believe that all the people who know and who understand the process, they know that these are lies and they are just trying to mislead the public opinion.


Listen to Morning Edition each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.


I want to ask about Israel's stated goal of this war and what the U.S. echoes to eradicate Hamas, in your view? Is that possible?

Well, eradicating a group does not have a definition. The definition is killing. We have seen the results of the war right now. More than 25,000 have been killed. Two thirds of them are children and women. Is that part of eradicating Hamas? If you want to replace an idea, you have to present a better idea. The better idea is prospects for the Palestinians, is a political horizon and that's what all of us are seeking.

Should Hamas have a role in future Palestinian governance?

This is not for us to decide. It's the Palestinian people's decision. And I think they are capable of deciding on their fate, on their future. What we're doing here is supporting Palestinians and we would like to see our political prospects for them to have their statehood.

But as a country that engages with Hamas, do you think it's possible for them to have a constructive role? One Hamas official did say they would repeat October 7th again and again. So do you see a future in which Hamas could have a constructive role?

Well, actually, if there are political prospects and they are willing to adhere and to live with that, it's up to their people to decide their fate. I think that's basically a fair position from our country. We see that the Palestinian people are the only ones who have the right to say with whom they want to govern.And what we need is to present them with better options. That's what all of us should stand for.

You're in the U.S. this week speaking to U.S. officials. You've been speaking to US officials throughout this negotiation process. What is Qatar's main message to the U.S. as you describe a region, as you put it, that's boiling over?

Well, we need to focus on ending this war. We need to focus on overcoming the obstacles on the hostage deal and how to contain the situation in the region and how to ensure that there are better prospects for the Palestinian in order not to have such a conflict in the future.

If this doesn't end soon, what are the risks for a full regional war that drags the U.S., Qatar and others into it?

Well, it will always remain a risk as long as this conflict continues. And I don't think that the situation is tolerable anymore. We've seen the humanitarian suffering and loss is something that we didn't witness in any modern war, as it is the only place where the people have no safe place to flee to. It's horrifying. It's heartbreaking.

The audio portion of this interview was produced by Milton Guevara. It was edited by Jan Johnson.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Milton Guevara
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]