July 12, 2024

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Qatar’s hostage negotiator is no stranger to crisis

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Just hours after Hamas’s devastating dawn assault on southern Israel, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani was preparing for action. He established a task force and a working group to co-ordinate with Washington — his government being one of the few with direct lines to the US, Israel, Hamas and the Islamist group’s backer, Iran. Within 48 hours, Sheikh Mohammed, who is also foreign minister, had spoken to Mossad chief David Barnea, US secretary of state Antony Blinken, his Iranian counterpart, and Hamas’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh.

The initial intention was to take the temperature of an erupting crisis. Israel, enraged and traumatised after the deadliest attack on its soil since the state’s founding in 1948, was in no mood for negotiations. Instead, it demanded that Hamas released the hostages its militants seized during its brutal October 7 raid, says an official briefed on the talks.

When Sheikh Mohammed spoke to Hamas’s political leaders — in exile in Doha and distanced from the group’s military wing in Gaza — they insisted that the militants did not mean to capture so many hostages, including civilians. “OK, show us by releasing all the civilians now,” replied Qatari officials. “It’s more complicated,” was the response.

It has been complicated for Sheikh Mohammed ever since. Working closely with Barnea and CIA chief Bill Burns, the quietly spoken 43-year-old has co-ordinated diplomatic efforts to secure the hostages’ release. On Wednesday, after weeks of tortuous negotiations, Israel and Hamas finally agreed a deal in which the militant group will release 50 women and children from around 240 captives. In return, Israel will pause its offensive on Hamas-controlled Gaza for four days, beginning on Friday, allow more aid and fuel into the besieged strip and free 150 Palestinian…

2023-11-24 12:00:14

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