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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Arab foreign ministers in Amman on Saturday where he reiterated U.S. opposition to a ceasefire. Following Hamas’ attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people and took over 200 people captive on October 7, the consistent bombing of Gaza by Israeli armed forces suggests the focus has long shifted from rescuing hostages to the obliteration of Gaza, which Israel and the US deem necessary to the elimination of Hamas. In so doing, the IDF and Hamas may have inadvertently killed some of the hostages. “Prioritising the hostage release over military action” could save the day Daniel Levy told CNN.
The message to the US from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt, was “clear and consistent”, CNN’s Becky Andersen reported from Doha over the weekend. The Arab nations demanded an immediate ceasefire, stating on Saturday that “Israel has gone beyond a justified response”. The war between Hamas and Israel “requires more than just a military solution” said Levy, President of the US-Middle East Project.
The hostages could be the path out of the war. “When the US talks to Qatar, or when Blinken visits Turkiye, can you get the prisoner release in exchange for a partial ceasefire?” questions Levy. A ceasefire would give Palestinian civilians breathing room, but Blinken said a ceasefire would give Hamas respite in the process.
Qatar, in coordination with the US, has been leading mediation talks with Hamas and Israeli officials since the militant group’s rampage into Israel on October 7th. More than 240 hostages were seized by the Palestinian Islamist group, leading to a dangerous escalation of conflicts between Israel and Gaza. The war has already resulted in the deaths of over 9,700 Palestinians, including 4,800 children.
Four hostages have been released thus far, two Israeli senior citizens and a US-Israeli mother and daughter duo, negotiated by Qatar, pitting the Gulf-nation front and centre of arguably the most tense time in modern geopolitical history and is calling for a “period of calm” in order to negotiate the hostage release.
With outrage on both sides of the political fence dividing the global population, and a new world order on the horizon, most nations, peoples, and their leaders have a strong opinion on the war taking place in the Middle East. Yet the war itself appears to have overshadowed the rescuing of hostages.
Qatar’s role in hostage negotiation and their open channel relationship with Hamas is under scrutiny. Doha hosting a Hamas office is raising more than a few eyebrows, leading their Ambassador to the US to publish an op-ed in The Washington Post.
The Qatari ambassador to the US, Meshad bin Hamad Al Thani opened with “Qatar doesn’t want another war in our region. Our objectives since the start of the current conflict have been clear: to secure the release of the hostages, establish humanitarian corridors for essential aid to Palestinian civilians, and to end the bloodshed and prevent further escalation.”
“The standoff over the hostages will end by release, rescue, or death. Israel will close the Hamas channel and pursue its operations without reservation and President Joe Biden, for his own political sake, will pressure Qatar to disavow Hamas clearly and unambiguously” writes Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in The Hill.
Qatar argues that these connections are crucial for peace negotiations, facilitating the mediation of hostage releases, the safe exit of foreign nationals, and various aspects of the ongoing negotiations. Although the US is keen to exploit that back channel, Blinken stated clearly that going forward, there would be no more “business as usual”, implying that Qatar must expel the bureau from Doha or face losing US support.
Qatar’s association with Hamas wasn’t as straightforward as it may have appeared. Originally, the US requested the Emir to host the Hamas politburo after the 2006 Hamas-Fatah conflict and it served as a means for the US to maintain communication with the Palestinians. Israel and several other nations also supported this initiative. Consequently, calls for shutting down the Hamas office seem impractical. A more pressing question is whether international security and the safety of hostages would be better served if Hamas relocated to Tehran and all communication went through the Iranians.
Although Hamas reportedly said it is ready to release prisoners in exchange for the release of all Palestinians jailed in Israel but Netanhanyu has ruled out negotiations. In an interview with ABC on Monday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “There’ll be no ceasefire, general ceasefire, in Gaza without the release of our hostages”.
Reuters reported that the spokesperson of Hamas’ military wing, Abu Obeida, on a Telegram channel said that 60 hostages have been killed by Israeli air raids on the Gaza strip with 23 missing Israeli hostages bodies’ “trapped under the rubble”.
Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk will not release the hostages until Israel agrees to a ceasefire, without which the possibility of releasing prisoners could be complicated warned Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on Saturday.
Qatar’s balancing act, liaising with Hamas, mediating on behalf of the US, and speaking directly with Israel, is a delicate one. “I think the Qataris have played the primary mediating role” explains Levy. The US Secretary of State’s recent visit to the Middle East shows the US also have a balancing act to manage, despite being Israel’s staunch supporter.
How many hostages remain alive and whether they remain a priority for either the US or Israel is the question. Qatar and its mediators need a conducive environment to successfully negotiate the release of the hostages maintaining that their efforts are currently hindered by the lack of a period of calm.
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