Regional leaders discuss war in Gaza at annual policy forum in Doha
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The Doha Forum resumes today in Qatar. The yearly meeting brings together regional policymakers, and this year's gathering is being dominated by Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. Qatar, a U.S. ally, is also home to some Hamas political leaders. The Gulf nation played an active role in negotiating a dayslong pause in fighting that allowed the release of Israeli and foreign hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. And it's still trying to get the two sides to agree to another pause. Joining me now from Doha is NPR's Aya Batrawy. Hi, Aya.
AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So if you could start by just telling us what you're hearing at this conference.
BATRAWY: Well, yeah, as you said, it's dominated by the war raging in Gaza, and it's increasingly being seen as a conflict that is threatening regional security and the key issue now facing the Middle East. And so with that, Qatar's Prime Minister Jassim Al Thani opened this forum saying that this war shows the size of the gap between those around the world demanding an end to the war and those reluctant to even call for a ceasefire. Now, Israel says this war to destroy Hamas could take another two months, but foreign ministers and others speaking at this forum say this cannot happen. It's just too destabilizing.
Now, also speaking at this forum was Qatar's chief negotiator and mediator with Hamas, Mohamed Al-Khulaifi. Now, Qatar, as you mentioned, hosts some Hamas leaders, and they say they've done this since 2006, when the Bush administration first requested this indirect channel of communication with the group. Now, Qatar also has ties with Iran and says it's working to try and contain this conflict from spreading to countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, where, you know, Iran-backed militias are active. But Qatar has also spent around $4 billion over the years on funding to Gaza to pay for salaries and fuel and other aid - support that was approved by Israel. Now, Khulaifi says, the Palestinian cause has been the most important issue in the region for Qatar.
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MOHAMED BIN MUBARAK AL-KHULAIFI: Palestine occupies a very important position in our foreign affairs agenda. It always has been the No. 1 Arab case on our agenda.
FADEL: Now, also among the attendees is U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The U.S. vetoed his appeal to the Security Council to demand an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in the war. What did he have to say?
BATRAWY: Well, the U.N. secretary general says he expects public order to break down soon in the Gaza Strip, as hunger, continuous Israeli bombardment and the spread of disease increases the possibility that Palestinians could be forced from Gaza into neighboring Egypt to seek refuge. And that is something Egypt vehemently opposes. Now, despite the U.S. veto, Guterres said he will not give up. And it's important to note that the U.S. said it vetoed that resolution because it didn't condemn the October 7 Hamas attack.
But that vote by the Security Council on Friday really highlighted how increasingly isolated the U.S. position is becoming internationally. It was the only country to veto, with 13 countries voting in favor and the U.K. abstaining. Now, I asked the conservative chair of Britain's Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament, Alicia Kearns, who's at this forum, if this abstention suggested a growing divergence between the U.S. and the U.K. on the war. And here's what she said.
ALICIA KEARNS: I think there's a widening gulf. When it comes to rhetoric, I'm very concerned at the lack of recognition of the fact that Israel does not have carte blanche. Occupying powers have responsibilities. And again, back to those basic laws of - you know, of war, about proportionality, distinction, you know, supporting civilians.
FADEL: Now, there's been a lot of frustration, some anger from Arab leaders with the Biden administration's unwavering support for Israel's war. But was there any support at the forum for the U.S. stance on this war?
BATRAWY: There was very little support - almost none. But one surprising advocate at this forum was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, who, by the way, says he supports another Trump presidency. Now, he praised Qatar for its role mediating during this war. He said there should be a two-state solution. And he insisted Hamas must be destroyed.
And of course, the U.S. has provided weapons to Israel to make that happen. But he also seems to think the Biden administration can simply pick up where it left off before this war erupted, that Washington can still get Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic ties with Israel by May.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I am a Republican. I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel.
BATRAWY: And I'll just say, there were gasps in the audience at hearing this, because this war is evoking a lot of emotions, and it is not something that the Arab public or Arab governments are going to easily forget.
FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy joining us from Doha. Thank you, Aya.
BATRAWY: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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