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How Qatar came to play an important role in mediating the 4-day cease-fire

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A four-day cease-fire is underway in the Gaza Strip after a deal was struck between Israel and Hamas to allow for a prisoner exchange, with a number of Israeli hostages being freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. The deal required the work of several nations, including the United States, Egypt and Qatar, which notably also played a role in the U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange in September.

H.A. Hellyer is nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

H A HELLYER: Thank you.

SIMON: How does Qatar come to play such a central role in these exchanges?

HELLYER: So Qatar has long-standing relations with the Israelis and Hamas in different capacities. Back in the late '90s, I think it was, Israel actually established the commercial affairs office in Doha. It was a bit under the radar. And Hamas has also had relations with the Qataris and, a few years ago, opened an office in Doha, which was opened in coordination with and at the request of Washington, D.C., to act as a channel for engagements with the group that it otherwise did not want to make too evident in public.

SIMON: Yeah. Some of the organization's leadership currently live in Qatar. Is that correct?

HELLYER: The political leadership that is outside of Palestine, yes. Some of the leaders are hosted in Qatar.

SIMON: And what's Qatar's interest in playing this diplomatic role?

HELLYER: Well, I think Qatar has sort of carved out a bit of a niche for itself over the past sort of five, 10 years in particular. It's a small country. It's an incredibly wealthy country and has been able to parlay some of that economic dividend into trying to play a role of mediator - a place where, in the Gulf, people can have discussions. And it's an interesting role that it's managed to carve out for itself.

SIMON: Israel's former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has criticized the praise that some of his own country's leadership bestowed on Qatar for their role, saying that Qatar supports Hamas and shouldn't be lauded for facilitating a prisoner exchange. Does he raise a fair concern?

HELLYER: Naftali Bennett is far-right-wing and is on the extreme of Israeli society on the political spectrum. I think it's worth pointing out that, on the Israeli side of this, the facilitation of support going to Gaza - i.e., to Hamas institutions in Gaza - was the expressed explicit policy of Benjamin Netanyahu's government and which the Israelis themselves are now attacking him for. So the part of the strategy that Netanyahu had with regards to Hamas was, if Hamas is empowered, then that means that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are weakened. And if they are weakened, then that means that the balance of power between them becomes almost impossible to envisage - a reconciliation between the two of them. And if there's no reconciliation, then that means that the idea of a united front for a Palestinian state becomes even less likely.

SIMON: You mentioned the extraordinary wealth, certainly for the size...

HELLYER: Right.

SIMON: ...Of its country - of Qatar. Do they have a role to play in the future of Gaza and rebuilding?

HELLYER: One would have to ask them that. But judging from history, I would presume that they most certainly would put forward funds in this regard, as I expect other countries in the region will as well. The question about Gaza is really about how to govern it, keeping in mind that, at the moment, the Arab states have been very clear that they're not suddenly going to try to take over responsibility for the Gaza Strip, which continues to be an Israeli-occupied territory. So responsibility for the strip and its civilian population belongs to Israel to take care of. And they put it another way very clearly, which is, we're not going to go and clear up Israel's mess.

SIMON: There are more hostages. Does Qatar have a role to play as the weeks and months roll on?

HELLYER: Judging from what they've said, judging from what the Israelis have said, I would say yes. Of course, the Qatari statements are ones of, you know, hope and optimism, but they're mediators, right? So they're supposed to be like that. I mean, right now, we're doing, quote-unquote, "a humanitarian pause." The idea of any sort of pause a few weeks ago was ruled out as impossible by the Israelis and the United States. So what the Qataris said - look, a few weeks ago, this would have been unthinkable. So we've got this now. So our hope is to try to extend it and find ways to, you know, prolong it.

SIMON: H.A. Hellyer is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

HELLYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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