DOHA With Egyptian efforts to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas making little headway after 10 days of warfare, Qatari officials say it is time for the Gulf state to step in, citing its close links to the Palestinian group.
But while U.S. officials say Washington has asked Qatar to try to influence Hamas, whose leader lives in Doha, they emphasize that those links mean Israel is unlikely to accept it as a mediator.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has rejected Egyptian efforts to end fighting that has killed more than 200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, saying any deal must include an end to a blockade of the coastal area and a recommitment to a ceasefire reached in an eight-day war there in 2012.
Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes largely stopped during a five-hour humanitarian ceasefire on Thursday, but fighting then resumed and an Egyptian-proposed permanent truce remained elusive, despite reports of senior Israeli negotiators approving such a deal in Cairo.
Hams officials say Cairo's proposal was drafted without communicating with Hamas leaders, whom Egypt has shunned as being linked with the Muslim Brotherhood which it calls a "terrorist group".
The United States and Israel also consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization, making direct contacts impossible.
“Qatar is the only country that reached out to us and I wouldn’t say it's mediation -- it’s still too early, they have just opened a line of communication," said Ezzat al-Rishq, a Hamas official in Doha.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry contacted the Egyptian and Qatari foreign ministers again on Thursday, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Western diplomatic sources in the Gulf said the United States had approached Qatar after it realized that the Cairo deal was bound to fail with Hamas being kept out of the picture.
"Hamas are the ones behind the attacks: If you don't include them any deal will fall apart fast, Qatar is best placed to mediate with Hamas," said a Western diplomat in Doha.
Qatar, a tiny but wealthy Gulf Arab state which has emerged as a leading supporter of Islamist groups after Arab Spring protests that began in 2011, sees the standoff as a chance to play a key role in trying to broker a ceasefire.
"We have good relations with Hamas and the West and a solid track record of being international mediators," a source close to the government said, declining to be named.
It hosts a large number of exiled Isamists from across the Middle East, including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who enjoys ample air time on the Doha-funded Al Jazeera network.
During numerous gatherings in Doha, Meshaal is always keen to express his gratitude and prayers to Qatar's leaders for their support of the Palestinian cause.
STEP TOO FAR
The government source told Reuters Qatar had noted the demands of Hamas and was now waiting for the United States to present Israel's conditions before kicking off a mediation.
"Both sides will present the proposals they have and that will be the best way to reach an effective ceasefire," the source said, declining to give a timeline for talks.
But Israeli and U.S. officials both poured cold water on the idea of direct Qatari mediation.
"The Qatari initiative is not on the table," a senior Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Israel wants to see an arrangement that Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) is involved in."
Qatar also has strong ties with Abbas and last week, its emir reiterated to him Qatar's support of the Palestinian people and their "just cause", Qatar's state news agency (QNA) said.
A Qatari official said Doha has donated $500 million in humanitarian aid to Palestinians since the recent crisis began.
On Tuesday, Sheikh Tamim met Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara to coordinate on working with Hamas for a ceasefire, sources close to the government said.
U.S. officials have said the foreign minister of Qatar, along with Egyptian and UAE counterparts, was among those Secretary of State Kerry has reached out to in recent days urging them to use their influence with Hamas.
But mediation by Qatar would be a step too far, one said.
“Hamas continues to leverage political and financial contacts in Qatar, which hosts several Hamas leaders, which makes it unlikely that Israel would agree to Qatar as a peace broker," said the U.S. official, who is based in Washington.
"The Israelis probably perceive Qatar would strongly favor Hamas in any deal.”
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by Sami Aboudi and Philippa Fletcher)