Qatar, a key mediator in sensitive Israel-Hamas talks, lashes out at Netanyahu over critical remarks

Qatar has said it is “appalled” by leaked remarks made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he criticized the country’s mediation efforts with Hamas

January 25, 2024 05:06 am | Updated 06:39 pm IST - RAFAH, Gaza Strip

Smoke rises following Israeli bombardments in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip.

Smoke rises following Israeli bombardments in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. | Photo Credit: AP

Qatar on Wednesday said it was “appalled” by leaked remarks made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he criticized the country’s mediation efforts with Hamas, complicating already arduous negotiations meant to halt the hostilities in exchange for a hostage release.

In a meeting with families of hostages held by Hamas, Mr. Netanyahu said Qatar’s role in the mediation was “problematic.” Qatar, a key mediator that also has deep ties to the militant group and hosts some of its exiled leaders, said M.r Netanyahu’s remarks were “irresponsible and destructive.”

The public spat came as sensitive talks were underway in an effort to advance a potential agreement that might offer some respite in the devastating 3-month-old war. The fighting has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, displaced some 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million people and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe that has spread hunger, malnutrition and disease across the embattled coastal enclave.

As the diplomacy continued, fierce fighting still raged, especially in southern Gaza, where the United Nations said an Israeli tank strike on a U.N. facility killed at least nine people and wounded dozens.

Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the offensive until “complete victory” against Hamas, which started the war with its Oct. 7 assault across the border, killing some 1,200 people in Israel and abducting 250 others.

Israel says it is fighting in self-defense, but it faces charges that it is committing genocide at the U.N. world court at The Hague, which announced that it would issue a decision Friday on South Africa’s request for an interim order telling Israel to halt the hostilities.

Qatar has been a critical link in negotiating efforts between Israel and Hamas.

In Mr. Netanyahu's leaked remarks, which were broadcast Tuesday on Israeli Channel 12 television, he also told the families that he has intentionally not thanked Qatar for its mediation efforts, claiming it could put more pressure on the Islamic militant group.

“Qatar in my opinion is no different, in essence, from the U.N. It is no different, in essence, from the Red Cross, and in some ways it is even more problematic,” he said. Israel views those organizations with suspicion, seeing them as biased against it and not helpful enough in securing the hostages’ freedom.

Mr. Netanyahu also said in the leaked audio that he had expressed anger at the U.S. for renewing a military base in the Gulf state. He said he told the Americans to put pressure on Qatar to put pressure on Hamas.

Qatar helped secure a weeklong truce in November in which over 100 hostages were released. It also is involved in efforts to broker a new deal to bring home the roughly 130 hostages that remain in captivity.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Majed al-Ansari, said on X, formerly Twitter, that his government was “appalled” by the reported remarks by Mr. Netanyahu but that they were “not surprising.”

“If the reported remarks are found to be true, the Israeli PM would only be obstructing and undermining the mediation process, for reasons that appear to serve his political career instead of prioritizing saving innocent lives, including Israeli hostages,” Mr. al-Ansari said.

Qatar, along with Egypt, is working on a new agreement that could set free more hostages. The White House’s Middle East envoy, Brett McGurk, was in Doha on Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. The visit came a day after McGurk met with officials in Egypt in hopes of establishing a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas.

But officials say the gap between the two sides is still wide, and the spat between Mr. Netanyahu and Qatar could rattle the negotiations.

Since the last truce ended in late November, fighting has intensified. The second-largest city of Khan Younis has been the latest focus of the war.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said at least nine people were killed when tank rounds struck a U.N. training center in the city where 800 people were sheltering, according to the agency’s Gaza director, Thomas White.

The number of deaths was likely to climb, the agency's head, Philippe Lazzarini, wrote on X. He said the compound was clearly marked and its coordinates shared with Israeli authorities.

“Once again a blatant disregard of basic rules of war,” he wrote.

The agency said the same site was also hit earlier this week, killing six. The Israeli military had no immediate comment. Israel says Hamas militants operate in the area of U.N. facilities, as well as out of other civilian structures.

Earlier Wednesday, Israel battled Palestinian militants outside of the city’s main Nasser Hospital, where medics said 850 patients and thousands of displaced people were trapped by the fighting because the surrounding roads were inaccessible or too dangerous.

Thousands of people fled south Tuesday from Khan Younis toward the town of Rafah. The U.N. says some 1.5 million people — around two-thirds of Gaza’s population — are crowded into shelters and tent camps in and around Rafah, which is on the border with Egypt.

Even there, Palestinians have found little safety, with Israel regularly carrying out strikes in and around the town. At least five people were killed when a strike hit a mosque Wednesday in Rafah, according to Associated Press journalists who viewed the bodies at a nearby hospital.

At least 210 Palestinians have been killed in the last 24 hours, bringing the total death toll from the war to 25,700, according to the Health Ministry. The agency’s count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it says most of the dead are women and minors.

Hamas is still attacking Israeli forces, even in some of the most devastated areas, and firing rockets into Israel. An attack Monday near the border killed 21 Israeli soldiers as they were preparing explosives for a controlled demolition. It was the military’s biggest loss of life in a single attack since Oct. 7.

Israeli media said the troops were working to create an informal buffer zone about a kilometer (half a mile) wide along the border to prevent militants from attacking Israeli communities near Gaza. Two TV channels ran footage showing what appeared to be a controlled demolition of several structures near the border, which the broadcasters said was done in the area of the attack.

An Israeli government official said the country was considering the idea of a “temporary” buffer zone.

“In the context of demilitarizing Gaza, a temporary security buffer zone may be established,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity pending a formal decision.

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