How Israel secretly made sure Hamas got millions of dollars a month
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Tel Aviv: Just weeks before Hamas launched the deadly October 7 attacks on Israel, the head of Mossad arrived in Doha, Qatar, for a meeting with Qatari officials.
For years, the Qatari government had been sending millions of dollars a month into the Gaza Strip – money that helped prop up the Hamas government there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only tolerated those payments, he had encouraged them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the funeral of Master Sergeant Gal Eisenkot on the weekend.
During his meetings in September with Qatari officials, according to several people familiar with the secret discussions, the Mossad chief, David Barnea, was asked a question that had not been on the agenda: did Israel want the payments to continue?
Netanyahu’s government had recently decided to continue the policy so Barnea said yes. The Israeli government still welcomed the money from Doha.
Allowing the payments – billions of dollars over roughly a decade – was a gamble by Netanyahu that a steady flow of money would maintain peace in Gaza, the eventual launching point of the October 7 attacks, and keep Hamas focused on governing, not fighting.
The Qatari payments, while ostensibly a secret, have been widely known and discussed in the Israeli news media for years. Netanyahu’s critics disparage them as part of a strategy of “buying quiet” and the policy is in the middle of a ruthless reassessment following the attacks. Netanyahu has lashed back at that criticism, calling the suggestion that he tried to empower Hamas “ridiculous”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: AP
In interviews with more than two dozen current and former Israeli, US and Qatari officials, and officials from other Middle Eastern governments, The New York Times unearthed new details about the origins of the policy, the controversies that erupted inside the Israeli government, and the lengths that Netanyahu went to in order to shield the Qataris from criticism and keep the money flowing.
The payments were part of a string of decisions by Israeli political leaders, military officers and intelligence officials – all based on the fundamentally flawed assessment that Hamas was neither interested in nor capable of a large-scale attack. The Times has previously reported on intelligence failures and other faulty assumptions that preceded the attacks.
Even as the Israeli military obtained battle plans for a Hamas invasion and analysts observed significant terrorism exercises just over the border in Gaza, the payments continued. For years, Israeli intelligence officers even escorted a Qatari official into Gaza, where he doled out money from suitcases filled with millions of dollars.
The money from Qatar had humanitarian goals including paying government salaries in Gaza and buying fuel to keep a power plant running. But Israeli intelligence officials now believe that the money had a role in the success of the October 7 attacks, if only because the donations allowed Hamas to divert some of its own budget toward military operations. Separately, Israeli intelligence has long assessed that Qatar uses other channels to secretly fund Hamas’ military wing, an accusation that Qatar’s government has denied.
Allowing the payments – billions of dollars over roughly a decade – was a gamble that a steady flow of money would maintain peace in Gaza.
“Any attempt to cast a shadow of uncertainty about the civilian and humanitarian nature of Qatar’s contributions and their positive impact is baseless,” a Qatari official said in a statement.
Multiple Israeli governments enabled money to go to Gaza for humanitarian reasons, not to strengthen Hamas, an official in Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. He added: “Prime Minister Netanyahu acted to weaken Hamas significantly. He led three powerful military operations against Hamas which killed thousands of terrorists and senior Hamas commanders.”
Hamas has always publicly stated its commitment to eliminating the state of Israel. But each payout was a testament to the Israeli government’s view that Hamas was a low-level nuisance, and even a political asset.
As far back as December 2012, Netanyahu told prominent Israeli journalist Dan Margalit that it was important to keep Hamas strong, as a counterweight to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Margalit, in an interview, said Netanyahu told him that having two strong rivals, including Hamas, would lessen pressure on him to negotiate towards a Palestinian state.
Palestinian citizens evacuate their homes damaged by Israeli airstrikes.Credit: Getty
The official in the prime minister’s office said Netanyahu never made this statement. But Netanyahu would articulate this idea to others over the years.
While Israeli military and intelligence leaders have acknowledged failings leading up to the Hamas attack, Netanyahu has refused to address such questions. And with a war waging in Gaza, a political reckoning for the man who has served as prime minister for 13 of the past 15 years, is, for the moment, on hold.
Netanyahu’s critics say that his approach to Hamas had, at its core, a cynical political agenda: to keep Gaza quiet as a means of staying in office without addressing the threat of Hamas or simmering Palestinian discontent.
“The conception of Netanyahu over a decade and a half was that if we buy quiet and pretend the problem isn’t there, we can wait it out and it will fade away,” said Eyal Hulata, Israel’s national security adviser from July 2021 until the beginning of this year.
Netanyahu and his security aides slowly began reconsidering their strategy toward the Gaza Strip after several bloody and inconclusive military conflicts there against Hamas.
“Everyone was sick and tired of Gaza,” said Zohar Palti, a former director of intelligence for Mossad. “We all said, ‘Let’s forget about Gaza’, because we knew it was a deadlock.”
After one of the conflicts, in 2014, Netanyahu charted a new course – emphasising a strategy of trying to “contain” Hamas while Israel focused on Iran’s nuclear program and its proxy armies including Hezbollah.
This strategy was buttressed by repeated intelligence assessments that Hamas was neither interested in nor capable of launching a significant attack inside Israel.
Qatar, during this period, became a key financier for reconstruction and government operations in Gaza. One of the world’s wealthiest nations, Qatar has long championed the Palestinian cause and, of all its neighbours, has cultivated the closest ties to Hamas. These relationships have proved valuable in recent weeks as Qatari officials have helped negotiate for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has been involved in negotiations. Qatar has emerged as the go-to mediator during the conflict.Credit: AP
Qatar’s work in Gaza during this period was blessed by the Israeli government. Netanyahu even lobbied Washington on Qatar’s behalf. In 2017, as Republicans pushed to impose financial sanctions on Qatar over its support for Hamas, he dispatched senior defence officials to Washington. The Israelis told US lawmakers that Qatar had played a positive role in the Gaza Strip, according to three people familiar with the trip.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of research for Israel’s military intelligence, said some officials saw the benefits of maintaining an “equilibrium” in the Gaza Strip. “The logic of Israel was that Hamas should be strong enough to rule Gaza,” he said, “but weak enough to be deterred by Israel.”
The administrations of three American presidents – Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden – broadly supported having the Qataris playing a direct role in funding Gaza operations.
But not everyone was on board.
Avigdor Lieberman, months after becoming Israeli defence minister in 2016, wrote a secret memo to Netanyahu and the Israeli military chief of staff. He said Hamas was slowly building its military abilities to attack Israel, and he argued that Israel should strike first.
Israel’s goal is “to ensure that the next confrontation between Israel and Hamas will be the final showdown,” he wrote in the memo, dated Dec. 21, 2016, a copy of which was reviewed by the Times. A preemptive strike, he said, could remove most of the “leadership of the military wing of Hamas”.
Netanyahu rejected the plan, preferring containment to confrontation.
Suitcases Full of Cash
During a 2018 cabinet meeting, Netanyahu’s aides presented a new plan: every month, the Qatari government would make millions of dollars in cash payments directly to people in Gaza as part of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.
Shin Bet, the country’s domestic security service, would monitor the list of recipients to try to ensure that members of Hamas’ military wing would not directly benefit.
Suitcases filled with cash soon began crossing the border into Gaza.
Each month, Israeli security officials met Mohammed al-Emadi, a Qatari diplomat, at the border between Israel and Jordan. From there, they drove him to the Kerem Shalom border crossing and into Gaza.
At first, Emadi brought with him $US15 million ($22 million) to distribute, with $US100 handed out at designated locations to each family approved by the Israeli government, according to former Israeli and US officials.
The funds were intended to pay salaries and other expenses, but one senior Western diplomat who was based in Israel until last year said Western governments had long assessed that Hamas was skimming from the cash disbursements.
“Money is fungible,” said Chip Usher, a senior Middle East analyst at the CIA until his retirement this year. “Anything that Hamas didn’t have to use out of its own budget freed up money for other things.”
Yossi Cohen, who managed the Qatari file for many years as the Mossad chief, came to question Israel’s policy toward the Gaza money. During his final year running the spy service, he believed there was little oversight over where the money was going.
In June 2021, Cohen gave his first public speech after retiring from the spy service. He said that the Qatari money to the Gaza Strip had gotten “out of control”.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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