Israel Pressures Qatar over Gaza Hostages Ahead of Spy Chiefs’ Meeting

REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/Pool/File Photo
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 7, 2024.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up public pressure on Qatar to bring about the release of Gaza hostages on Saturday, saying the Gulf emirate should apply the leverage it has as a host and funder of the Hamas militants holding them.

The unusually blunt remarks came on the eve of what Reuters sources have described as a meeting among the Qatari prime minister and intelligence chiefs from Israel, the United States and Egypt to discuss a potential new deal to free hostages.

Those talks were expected to take place in an undisclosed location in Europe on Sunday, the sources said. Officials from the four countries have not formally confirmed the meeting, however.

“Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas. It also funds Hamas. It has leverage over Hamas,” Netanyahu said in a televised news conference. “So they should be so good as to apply their pressure. They positioned themselves as mediators – so please go right ahead, let them be so good as to bring back our hostages.”

Qatar and Egypt have open channels to Israel and Hamas, and brokered a November truce in which Hamas freed some of the 253 people it seized in an Oct. 7 cross-border rampage that triggered the Gaza war. In return, Israel approved increased aid for the devastated enclave and released scores of Palestinian prisoners.

Efforts to get a follow-up deal to return at least some of the 132 remaining hostages appear to be flagging, and protests in Israel demanding that the government do more are spreading.

There was no immediate Qatari response to Netanyahu’s comments. On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry in Doha said it was “appalled” by remarks by Netanyahu, leaked to Israeli TV, in which he described himself as refraining from thanking Qatar for its mediation and deemed the gas-rich emirate “problematic.”

Asked in his Saturday briefing about that exchange, Netanyahu said: “I don’t take back a single word.”

Israel has long had fraught relations with Qatar, which does not formally recognize it and is close to its arch-enemy Iran.

After the last Gaza war, in 2014, Israel agreed to Qatar pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Palestinian reconstruction in what both countries described as a means of staving off further conflict.

Doha cited the cooperation as a testament to its distance from Hamas militancy, and sought to parlay its Gaza relief efforts into better relations with Israel’s ally Washington.

The four-way meeting follows public criticism by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Wednesday of Israel, which he accused of holding up aid deliveries to Gaza in order to generate pressure for the release of hostages.

Israel says it places no limits on aid brought into Gaza, as long as it undergoes security inspection, and Netanyahu appeared to cast Sisi’s remarks as designed for domestic consumption.

“Relations with Egypt are managed in an ongoing and proper manner, between the governments, all the time,” he said. “Each of us of course has its interests. Egypt has the need to say certain things. I will not elaborate on this matter.”