More than 100 members of the Washington-area Jewish community assembled in front of the Qatari Embassy on Wednesday morning to demand that the Gulf state use its influence to exert “maximum pressure” on Hamas to release the hostages whom it kidnapped and has held hostage since Oct. 7.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the event organizer, told JNS that it is deliberately describing the demonstration as a “gathering,” rather than a “protest” or “rally,” because they are also grateful for the role that Qatar has played in negotiations so far.
“We are gathering in appreciation and frustration. The Qataris are the indispensable mediator and negotiator to bring the hostages home,” Halber said. “Qatar has positioned themselves as this mediator. They’re a major non-NATO ally of the United States, enjoying our military, diplomatic and economic support, and we expect them to make freeing the hostages their number one international priority, and to use all their leverage over Hamas, which is absolutely enormous, to bring them home.”
“We want them to crack a whip on Hamas,” he added.
Speakers at the gathering included Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Glenn Ivey (D-Md.), as well as Alan Goldstein, whose cousin Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a 23-year-old Israeli-American, was taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7 from the Nova music festival in southern Israel.
“I know that the Qataris have been involved in negotiations,” Ivey told attendees. “But we really need to make sure they understand the urgency of the moment. As Dr. [Martin Luther] King would have called it, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ We need to get the hostages home.”
During the event, almost all the visible embassy windows had curtains drawn, and no Qatari embassy employees, except security guards, were visible. The embassy did not respond to a request for comment from JNS.
Despite the modest size and peaceful nature of the gathering, a Qatari official told Axios it was an unacceptable criticism of their efforts. “It’s unfortunate to see these organizations stirring the public for their own agendas, including fundraising and for them to have members of Congress present, delivering speeches for political posturing,” the official reportedly said.
Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday for criticisms he apparently made in a leaked audio recording during a meeting with hostage families.
“When I talk about Qatar, you don’t hear me thank Qatar,” Netanyahu seemed to say. “I’ve been very angry recently—and I didn’t hide it from the Americans—that they renewed the contract on the military base they have with Qatar. Why didn’t you say, ‘I ask you to return the abductees to us?’”
On Wednesday, a Qatari spokesman said the country is “appalled” by the recording and accused Netanyahu of “obstructing and undermining the mediation process” for domestic political purposes.
Qatar, which hosts the political leadership of Hamas in its capital Doha and has provided the terrorist group with hundreds of millions of dollars, played a significant role in mediating between Israel and Hamas over the release of 105 hostages in November. It has previously deflected criticism of its relationship with Hamas, saying Washington requested that it open that mediation channel.
“The channel with Hamas was established in Qatar at the request of the U.S. to maintain open lines of communication,” Qatar’s ambassador to the United States posted in November, in response to an accusation from Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) that Qatar hosts terrorists. “We are focused on the negotiations and working hard with all sides to help release more hostages safely,” the ambassador wrote.
Halber, of the JCRC, disagreed with the charge that the United States or the Biden administration is to blame for Qatar’s relationship with Hamas.
“I think the president of the United States, who showed up within three days of the attack on Israel, and the outstanding military support that he’s been giving, the outstanding pressure that he has been utilizing to try and get the Qataris and the Egyptians and all the others just bears applauding,” told JNS. “I think the administration is doing everything it can.”
Attendees at Wednesday’s event told JNS that they are focused on securing the release of the hostages, not politics.
“I would love to be able to support a ceasefire,” said Shelley Ducker, of Bethesda, Md. “Nothing would make me happier. But until the hostages are free, I just don’t see how anyone can come to the table.”
“It’s so upsetting when the very first step, the very first obvious step to de-escalation, seems to be to free the hostages,” she added. “The very starting point is, release the hostages, who I hope are alive. Release the bodies if they are not alive so they can have a Jewish burial and bring their families peace.”
At the State Department’s press briefing on Thursday, Vedant Patel, the department’s principal deputy spokesperson, was asked about whether Netanyahu’s reports comments about Qatar might set hostage negotiations back.
“Qatar has been an integral, irreplaceable, key regional partner, not just as it relates to this current ongoing conflict, but other priorities that the United States has had in the region,” Patel said. “We’ll look forward to continuing to deepen our partnership with them and work with them on a number of key issues.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Arab states like Qatar cannot continue their “business as usual” relationships with Hamas once the conflict in Gaza concludes.
Asked about Qatar’s relationship with Hamas on Thursday, Patel said that would be a decision for the Qataris.
“Hamas can no longer be using Gaza as a launching pad for terrorist attacks onto Israel,” he said. “As it relates to the specific relationships, countries will need to make their own determinations.”
During a White House press gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Duluth, Wisc., John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, was also asked about the leaked audio, about which he declined to comment.
“The Israeli people want their loved ones back. We want to make sure we get our American hostages back to their families where they belong,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy being put at this across the region with our Israeli counterparts, as well as our other counterparts, including the Qataris, and we’re just going to keep working at that.”