Hamas explores moving political headquarters out of Qatar

Qatar is reassessing its role as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. KARIM JAAFAR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Qatar is reassessing its role as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. KARIM JAAFAR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

Such a step could upend fragile talks to free Israeli hostages held captive in Gaza.

DUBAI—Hamas’s political leadership is looking to move from its current base in Qatar, as U.S. legislators build pressure on the Gulf state to deliver on cease-fire negotiations that look likely to fail.

If Hamas left Qatar, the move could upend delicate talks to free dozens of Israeli hostages held captive in Gaza and likely make it more difficult for Israel and the U.S. to pass messages to a group designated by Washington as a terrorist organization. Hamas leaders have lived in Doha, the Qatari capital, since 2012 in an arrangement supported by the U.S.

Arab officials said that in recent days the group has contacted at least two countries in the region asking if they would be open to the idea of its political leaders relocating to their capitals. Oman is one of the countries that was contacted, one Arab official said. Omani officials didn’t respond to a request for comment. Arab officials said Hamas believes the slow-moving hostage negotiations could last for months, putting the group’s close ties to Qatar and its presence in Doha at risk.

“The talks have already stalled again with barely any signs or prospects for them to resume any time soon, and distrust is rising between Hamas and the negotiators," said an Arab mediator familiar with the situation.

In recent weeks, mediators from Qatar and Egypt have pressured Hamas representatives to get the group to soften its conditions. At times, Hamas leadership received threats of expulsion if it failed to agree to a deal releasing hostages.

“The possibility of the talks being upended entirely is very real," said another Arab mediator.

Qatar, a Persian Gulf monarchy the size of Connecticut, has long worked to end Gaza wars and boost aid to Palestinians, building trust with the combatants and familiarity with their negotiating tactics. In the past six months, it has brought those relationships to bear on one of the world’s thorniest diplomatic crises, demonstrating its value as a U.S. ally while raising its profile as the Middle East’s indispensable mediator.

But Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, recently said the Gulf state was reassessing its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas. He cited what he said was unfair criticism of Qatar’s efforts to end the war in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said pressure should be applied on Qatar, which played a significant role in mediating November’s truce and prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel.

“There are limits to this role and limits to the ability to which we can contribute to these negotiations in a constructive way," the Qatari leader said at a news conference. “The state of Qatar will make the appropriate decision at the right time."

Never before has Qatar’s decadelong relationship with Hamas, which is committed to violent resistance to Israeli occupation, come under such scrutiny. The attacks on Oct. 7, when Gaza militants, according to Israeli authorities, killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped over 200 others, have raised suggestions in Israel that Qatar might have been partly responsible because of its ties with Hamas.

Some U.S. lawmakers and Israeli politicians have for months called on the White House to force Qatar to cut ties with Hamas and face punitive action for what they say amounts to support for terrorism.

Qatari and U.S. officials deny the terrorism allegations. They say Qatar has coordinated with Israel on its previous engagements with Hamas, and Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, has praised its recent diplomacy following the Oct. 7 attacks.

The officials say Hamas political leaders are in Doha at Washington’s request and would otherwise end up in a location where it is harder for Western officials to communicate with them, such as Iran or Syria. Qatar’s ability to engage with Hamas is crucial, since U.S. and European officials are prevented from contacting them directly by their governments’ classification of the group as a terrorist organization.

Israel and Hamas remain far apart on issues such as when Israeli forces would leave Gaza and how many Palestinians forced from their homes by Israeli evacuation orders will be able to return, the officials said. Hamas has also said it is unsure whether it could produce 40 Israeli civilian captives as part of a U.S.-backed cease-fire proposal. That stance has complicated talks toward a possible cease-fire in the six-month-old war that has left much of Gaza in ruins, according to Arab officials familiar with the negotiations.

Health officials in Gaza say more than 33,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed there since the start of the war, without distinguishing between civilians and militants.

Israel and Hamas have rejected various proposals made through Egypt and Qatar following the end of the last cease-fire on Nov. 30, though they have previously largely agreed on a framework that includes several phases and a potential long-term cease-fire.

Qatar’s ability to maintain ties with Hamas—as it does with other radical groups such as the Taliban and states including Iran and Venezuela—reflects a difficult balancing act in a world in which the U.S. increasingly demands that its friends take unequivocal stances with it and against an array of enemies. This hereditary monarchy hosts one of America’s largest foreign military bases.

Pressure from U.S. legislators has been building on Qatar to extract more concessions from Hamas or sever ties with the organization.

Earlier this month, Sen. Ted Budd (R., N.C.) introduced a bill to consider terminating Qatar’s status as a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally unless it expelled all Hamas members or agreed to extradite them to the U.S. The status, which opens the door to more military exercises, joint operations and potential arms sales, was granted by President Biden in 2022 after Qatar helped facilitate the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan.

“Failure to take action against Hamas is beginning to look like tacit support for a foreign terrorist organization designated by the United States," Budd said in a statement.

The Qatari Embassy in Washington called the bill disappointing and unhelpful. “Especially in this delicate moment in our region, it is reckless to undermine the partnerships that America and its allies have built carefully over decades," it said in a statement.

Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, objected to the bill, saying that while it is uncomfortable for an ally to have a relationship with Hamas, kicking its leaders out of Doha would guarantee that the hostages are never released because there would be no alternative negotiating channel. He said the bill would endanger U.S. interests in the Middle East, predicting that such a move would have an impact on America’s base in Qatar and the Gulf state’s purchases of U.S. arms.

“They are an imperfect ally," Murphy said. “This is a repressive regime with a bad history on human rights and worker rights, but they are a critical ally."

He said Qatar hosted Hamas after a request from the U.S. in 2012, later sent money to Hamas at Israel’s request and helped negotiate cease-fires over the past decade.

Israeli officials have for months been lobbying Egypt, which communicates directly with Hamas’s military wing and often with its political leadership, to take a bigger role in hostage talks, citing concern that Qatar wasn’t putting enough pressure on Hamas in Doha.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), the former Democratic leader in the House, said in recent days that Qatar should pressure Hamas to release the hostages by cutting off funding to the group or kicking its political leaders out of Doha. “If Qatar fails to apply this pressure, the United States must re-evaluate its relationship with Qatar," he said in a statement.

The Qatari Embassy in Washington responded by saying Doha is “only a mediator" and that Israel and Hamas are entirely responsible for reaching an agreement. It said that Qatar is frustrated by the slow progress of the talks and is tempted to walk away from them, but that it isn’t giving up on freeing the hostages.

A U.S. official said the Qataris have been clear that when the U.S. wants to have a conversation about ending Hamas’s presence in Doha, Qatar would be ready “to do what’s best" for the bilateral relationship.

Many Israelis fear Qatar’s relationship with Hamas could thwart attempts to destroy the group. Some say that Qatar’s humanitarian aid helps Hamas, even if unintentionally, by freeing the group to spend its money on militant activities.

The Qataris say Hamas trusts them because they have no direct stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their backing of other Islamist groups during the Arab Spring uprisings bolstered credibility with Hamas, according to regional analysts, while Doha-based Al Jazeera television provides sympathetic coverage of the Palestinian cause and amplifies the group’s messaging.

A U.S. official said earlier this year that Qatar has used its relationship and ability to speak with Hamas to urge the group toward a reasonable position to advance the negotiations with Israel but that the split between Hamas’s political leadership in Doha and military leadership in Gaza made it difficult to achieve results.

“Our priority is the hostages, especially the American hostages, and we understand that to gain their freedom, it’s important that Qatar be able to have a conversation with Hamas," said the official. “I don’t think that anyone believes there’s a future for Hamas in Doha. The Qataris understand and are not clamoring for Hamas to stay or be there."

Write to Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com and Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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