Just weeks before Hamas launched the deadly Oct. 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. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel not only tolerated those payments, he had encouraged them.
During his meetings in September with the 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?
Mr. Netanyahu’s government had recently decided to continue the policy, so Mr. 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 Mr. Netanyahu that a steady flow of money would maintain peace in Gaza, the eventual launching point of the Oct. 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. Mr. 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. Mr. Netanyahu has lashed back at that criticism, calling the suggestion that he tried to empower Hamas “ridiculous.”
In interviews with more than two dozen current and former Israeli, American 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 Mr. 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 like 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 Oct. 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.
“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 Mr. 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, Mr. Netanyahu told the prominent Israeli journalist Dan Margalit that it was important to keep Hamas strong, as a counterweight to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Mr. Margalit, in an interview, said that Mr. Netanyahu told him that having two strong rivals, including Hamas, would lessen pressure on him to negotiate toward a Palestinian state.
The official in the prime minister’s office said Mr. Netanyahu never made this statement. But the prime minister would articulate this idea to others over the years.
While Israeli military and intelligence leaders have acknowledged failings leading up to the Hamas attack, Mr. 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 last 15 years, is, for the moment, on hold.
But Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. Netanyahu charted a new course — emphasizing a strategy of trying to “contain” Hamas while Israel focused on Iran’s nuclear program and its proxy armies like 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 neighbors, 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 work in Gaza during this period was blessed by the Israeli government. And Mr. 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 defense officials to Washington. The Israelis told American 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 that 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 J. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — broadly supported having the Qataris playing a direct role in funding Gaza operations.
But not everyone was on board.
Avigdor Lieberman, months after becoming defense minister in 2016, wrote a secret memo to Mr. 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 pre-emptive strike, he said, could remove most of the “leadership of the military wing of Hamas.”
Mr. Netanyahu rejected the plan, preferring containment to confrontation.
Hamas as ‘an Asset’
Among the team of Mossad agents that tracked terrorism financing, some came to believe that — even beyond the money from Qatar — Mr. Netanyahu was not very concerned about stopping money going to Hamas.
Uzi Shaya, for example, made several trips to China to try to shut down what Israeli intelligence had assessed was a money-laundering operation for Hamas run through the Bank of China.
After his retirement, he was called to testify against the Bank of China in an American lawsuit brought by the family of a victim of a Hamas terrorist attack.
At first, the head of Mossad encouraged him to testify, saying it could increase financial pressure on Hamas, Mr. Shaya recalled in a recent interview.
Then, the Chinese offered Mr. Netanyahu a state visit. Suddenly, Mr. Shaya recalled, he got different orders from his former bosses: He was not to testify.
Mr. Netanyahu visited Beijing in May 2013, part of an effort to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties between Israel and China. Mr. Shaya said he would have liked to have testified.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “there were other considerations.”
While the reasons for the decision were never confirmed, the change in tack left him suspicious. Especially because politicians at times talked openly about the value of a strong Hamas.
Shlomo Brom, a retired general and former deputy to Israel’s national security adviser, said an empowered Hamas helped Mr. Netanyahu avoid negotiating over a Palestinian state.
“One effective way to prevent a two-state solution is to divide between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” he said in an interview. The division gives Mr. Netanyahu an excuse to disengage from peace talks, Mr. Brom said, adding that he can say, “I have no partner.”
Mr. Netanyahu did not articulate this strategy publicly, but some on the Israeli political right had no such hesitation.
Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right politician who is now Mr. Netanyahu’s finance minister, put it bluntly in 2015, the year he was elected to Parliament.
“The Palestinian Authority is a burden,” he said. “Hamas is an asset.”
Suitcases Full of Cash
During a 2018 cabinet meeting, Mr. 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 cease-fire 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’s military wing would not directly benefit.
Despite those assurances, dissent boiled over. Mr. Lieberman saw the plan as a capitulation and resigned in November 2018. He publicly accused Mr. Netanyahu of “buying short-term peace at the price of serious damage to long-term national security.” In the years that followed, Mr. Lieberman would become one of Mr. Netanyahu’s fiercest critics.
During an interview last month in his office, Mr. Lieberman said the decisions in 2018 directly led to the Oct. 7 attacks.
“For Netanyahu, there is only one thing that is really important: to be in power at any cost,” he said. “To stay in power, he preferred to pay for tranquillity.”
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, Mr. Emadi brought with him $15 million to distribute, with $100 handed out at designated locations to each family approved by the Israeli government, according to former Israeli and American 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 that 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 C.I.A. until his retirement this year. “Anything that Hamas didn’t have to use out of its own budget freed up money for other things.”
Naftali Bennett, who was Israel’s education minister in 2018 when the payments began and later became the defense minister, was among members of Mr. Netanyahu’s government who criticized the payments. He called them “protection money.”
And yet, when Mr. Bennett began his one-year stint as prime minister in June 2021, he continued the policy. By then, Qatar was spending roughly $30 million a month in Gaza.
Mr. Bennett and his aides, though, decided that the cash disbursements were a monthly embarrassment for his government. During meetings with security officials, Mr. Barnea, the Mossad chief, expressed opposition to continuing the payments — certain that some of the money was being diverted to Hamas’s military activities.
For their part, Qatari officials wanted a more stable, reliable way to get money to Gaza for the long-term.
All sides reached a compromise: United Nations agencies would distribute the Qatari money rather than Mr. Emadi. Some of the money went directly to buy fuel for the power plant in Gaza.
Mr. Hulata, the national security adviser to Mr. Bennett, recalls the tension: Israel was blessing these Qatari payments, even as Mossad intelligence assessments concluded that Qatar was using other channels to secretly finance Hamas’s military arm.
It was hard to stop these military payments, he said, when Israel had become so reliant on Qatar.
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, Mr. 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.”
Maria Abi-Habib and Justin Scheck contributed reporting from London, and Adam Sella from Tel Aviv.