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All eyes on 'decisive' Qatar in hostage release efforts

By AFP - Oct 22,2023 - Last updated at Oct 22,2023

PARIS — Boasting good relations with both Western governments and Hamas, the emirate of Qatar has emerged as the key power in efforts to release the hostages seized by the Palestinian militant group from Israel even as other states show readiness to help.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday lauded the key role played by Qatar in the release by Hamas of two American hostages held since its surprise attack against Israel on October 7, adding he was confident of further releases.

The West is increasingly using the influence of the small but gas-rich Gulf Arab state, a key global investor, in such situations, with the role of Qatar also crucial to the release last month of five Americans held by Iran.

While Egypt has traditionally in recent years served as the main mediator between Israel and Palestinian groups and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also makes no secret of its desire to be involved, the focus is on Qatar helping to return the hostages safely.

"The most accommodating mediator is Qatar," said Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Centre for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERMAM).

Qatar, which has hosted Hamas’s political office for more than 10 years, is also respected by the United States, Israel’s chief ally. It is home to the largest US military base in the region.


 ‘Right channels’ 


Israel says 203 people, Israelis, dual nationals and foreigners, were abducted by Hamas fighters, according to the government.

Israel has responded with a relentless bombing campaign against the Gaza Strip that has left at least 4,385 people dead, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas administration.

US hostages Judith Tai Raanan and her daughter Natalie Shoshana Raanan were back in Israel late Friday, the Israeli government said.

“This is a very good outcome obtained by the negotiators, in which Qatar played a very important role,” Macron told a group of reporters on Friday.

Macron said France wanted similar operations to go on in the next “hours and days” to continue “allowing hostages, in particular our hostages, to get out”.

“We are confident: The channels we have are the right ones and are useful,” he added. In a later message on X, formerly Twitter, Macron said Qatar played a “decisive role” in securing the release of the two American hostages.

Qatar is a “specialist in the release of hostages”, said Etienne Dignat of Sciences Po university in Paris and an expert on hostage situations.

It was with Qatar that $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds from South Korean banks was parked pending the release in a hugely complex and sensitive swap deal of the five American citizens held by Iran.


‘No collective negotiation’ 


It appears to have been no coincidence that Macron’s envoy for Lebanon, the former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a trusted confidant of the president on security issues, was in Qatar this week, according to diplomatic sources.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also paid a visit to Qatar on his marathon trip to the region this week.

The emirate had invited the Taliban to open an office in Doha with the approval of the United States, making it possible to negotiate the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in 2021, although this was then followed by the return of the Taliban to power.

Other heavyweights in the region are simultaneously trying to intervene.

Turkey has received “requests from several countries” to help, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, his country’s ex-spy chief, said on Tuesday in Beirut.

Erdogan has in recent months sought to warm relations with Israel which have suffered in the last years after a string of bitter disputes. But this risks having the consequence that Ankara is trusted by neither side.

And it was Egypt which helped secure the release in 2011 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held by Hamas for over five years.

Potential actors are “only those who have established long-standing relationships with Hamas and therefore the only ones authorised to make contact with its leaders”, said Abidi.

But in this case, the unprecedented number of hostages held and the number of nationalities represented among them means that there will be no single solution and the diplomacy is likely to be painstaking.

“There will be no collective negotiation,” said Abidi. “Each state will be called upon to negotiate the release of its own hostages.”

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