on the hill

Lawmakers weigh in on Qatar and Iran’s ties with Hamas 

Despite the near-unanimous support for Israel in the House, lawmakers’ presented a range of views on Monday following a classified briefing

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The US Capitol is seen in Washington, DC, October 5, 2023.

Emerging from a classified briefing on Capitol Hill about the Hamas attack on Israel on Wednesday morning, House lawmakers sounded off on a range of topics including the role of Qatar in hosting some of the terror group’s leadership, reports on Egyptian warnings to Israel about planned Hamas atrocities, American hostages held in Gaza, Iran’s role in the attack and the Israeli counteroffensive.

Despite the near-unanimous support for Israel in the House, lawmakers comments earlier in the week highlighted that there are no shortage of subjects related to the conflict on which divisions are present, both between and within each party.

Rep. Max Miller (R-OH), one of two Jewish House Republicans, offered a strong condemnation of Qatar, and said the U.S. should apply strong pressure to extradite Hamas leaders based in Qatar, seemingly a reference to Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas figure, and other higher-ups in the terror group.

“I want to see President [Joe] Biden go after our allies that we have, like the Qataris, and military relationships that we have, and extradite these Hamas terrorists. We know that they are there,” Miller told reporters. “And I would like to see that happen in a very forceful way. “

Other lawmakers were less forthcoming in offering strong condemnations of the U.S. partner nation. Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) said the subject of Turkey — which also harbors Hamas leaders — did not come up during the briefing. Bacon, a retired brigadier general in the Air Force, said he has “some mixed feelings about Qatar.”

“Qatar has two of the biggest military bases in their country — I flew out of Al Udeid as an Air Force guy — but yet their comments on Hamas were wrong,” Bacon told Jewish Insider, without directly addressing JI’s question about the country hosting Hamas leaders. “So I would ask Qatar to reconsider their position because it puts us in a bad spot. I am grateful for the bases they have there, but their statements are immoral at best.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), a retired Marine who serves as the top Democrat on an Armed Services subcommittee, emphasized the importance of the U.S. relationships with Turkey and Qatar.

“We’ve worked with Turkey and Qatar in a very positive manner in the past and they’ve been very helpful,” Gallego told JI. “We also have two of our largest military installations in both of those countries… so obviously we have a working relationship with them. I think it’s something that we’re going to continue to lean on in the Middle East.”

Rich Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a co-host of JI’s podcast, told JI that there are multiple avenues by which the U.S. can pressure Qatar and Turkey to turn over Hamas leaders, including economic sanctions, closing airspace to national airlines and opening discussions about moving the U.S. airbase out of Qatar.

“Anybody who enables Qatar to enable Hamas is an enabler of Hamas,” he argued. “And they should all be ashamed of themselves.” He compared Qatar to the Swiss banks that aided the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters after the briefing that “we know that Egypt had warned the Israelis three days prior that an event like this could happen.” 

Asked subsequently whether this conclusion was based on the information from the briefing, McCaul said that he didn’t “want to get too much into the classified [details], but a warning was given. I think the question was at what level.”

He said that he is “very concerned” about the quality of U.S. intelligence on the situation, warning that the situation could spiral into a “global jihad movement in Israel.” McCaul said that the attack may have been planned up to a year ago, and that it wasn’t clear how U.S. and Israeli intelligence had missed it.

He initially said that Hamas is holding “dozens” of American hostages. He subsequently said that there are 20 Americans unaccounted for — roughly in line with public reports.

Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also indicated that lawmakers had received “confirmation” that Hamas terrorists had killed children, toddlers and infants, adding that it was “now confirmed babies were beheaded.”

Following the briefing, there remained a significant partisan divide over how closely tied Iran was to the attack. Lawmakers indicated that the administration told them what it has said publicly: that it cannot, at this stage, tie Iran directly to the attacks.

Bacon argued that the administration lacks “clarity” on the issue and that “anyone with any intelligence knows Iran is behind this,” given their long standing support for Iran. 

“It’s clear as day that Iran made this possible… but yet the administration’s in denial,” he told reporters. “They’re not sure of Iran’s involvement. BS. Anyone with a brain knows Iran’s behind this.” 

McCaul said that he felt there is “reluctance” in the administration to directly link Iran to the attack, but “I think all roads lead to Iran… to say somehow Iran’s not [in this] I think is just a lack of common sense.”

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) described the administration’s view in more positive terms.

“I heard a hard-headed assessment,” Auchincloss told JI. “Nobody is disputing at all that Iran is a puppeteer of terrorism in the Middle East. It’s a question of direct planning, engagement, involvement in this particular activity. It is just that the reporting is unclear on that.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters there had been a “rush to judgment” about Iran’s involvement, claiming that she hadn’t seen intelligence that Iran had coordinated the attack. She added, however, that Iran “might use this as an opportunity” and acknowledged its support to Hamas.

“But I think we have to be very careful about conflating that with Iran being involved in the planning,” she said. “And I also think we have to be very careful about not inflaming further tensions. We don’t want to be fighting wars in multiple places in the region.”

Jayapal — who earlier this year described Israel as a “racist state” and this week unequivocally condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel — emphasized that, in its counteroffensive, Israel must follow the laws of war, praising Biden’s comments on the subject in his Tuesday speech. She said that that’s “equally important… to Israel also, of course, being able to have the right to defend itself.”

“I do think that there are many of us — including some of the questions [at the briefing] — that are concerned about the Palestinians who are in Gaza, have nowhere to go, and a siege, and what might happen if electricity is turned off, and food runs out,” Jayapal told JI. “And also Palestinian Americans who are stuck in Gaza right now — we need to make sure we’re treating all American citizens the same.”

Jayapal said that the current situation presents an unprecedented “threat to Jews in Israel, but also around the world.” She added that conversations about that aid to Israel on the left can be “complicated” but “the conversation is never about anything other than the horror that everybody feels watching what’s happening.”

McCaul said that he worries that “the narrative is going to flip” around Israel and Hamas, particularly if Israel sends ground troops into Gaza. Hamas, he noted, uses human shields to protect itself and its assets.

He said he’s “I’m already seeing” those patterns “in the streets of New York, with protests and people carrying swastikas.” At least one attendee of a pro-Hamas rally in New York on Sunday was photographed brandishing a swastika.

Miller took a significantly different view than Jayapal on the need for Israeli restraint, urging Israel to “take the gloves off.” Any other approach, he argued, would make it “impossible” to protect Israeli civilians.

“I am not saying to hurt civilians, I am saying to protect Israel,” a clearly angry Miller said. “When you have terrorists using civilians as human shields, and if you have ever been to war, you let me know how you operate in that setting.”

The administration is reportedly considering combining its request for Israel with supplemental funding for Ukraine, Taiwan and the southern border, despite widespread House GOP opposition. Even Bacon, a staunch Ukraine hawk, said it would be “a mistake” to package Israel and Ukraine together.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rick Scott (R-FL) urged the Department of Defense yesterday to transfer two U.S.-owned Iron Dome batteries and other unused military assets to Israel to help support its defensive capabilities.

Lawmakers said the administration had laid out a general framework for the aid that Israel will need, and that they expected a formal request to be transmitted soon.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that, in the immediate term, the administration has sufficient supplies and authorities to continue supplying both Israel and Ukraine, but said that “in the long run, that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to balance, as we’re also ramping up production, which has been going on for a while.”

Smith added that lawmakers had asked about the possibility of U.S. military involvement in hostage rescue or evacuation efforts, but said that the administration did not say anything specific on the subject.

The briefing reportedly turned tense at points — one Republican congressman reportedly cursed out the administration officials — over partisan disagreements. 

Jayapal alluded to this dynamic, condemning lawmakers who “want to call out failures of the administration in a time when we really, as a country, need to be united. And it makes it very difficult to have bipartisanship when you have one party that is simply focused on dividing at every turn.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.