CNN  — 

Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Gulf state of Qatar has come under fire by Israeli officials, American politicians and media outlets for sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, which is governed by the Palestinian militant group.

But all that happened with Israel’s blessing.

In a series of interviews with key Israeli players conducted in collaboration with Israeli investigative journalism organization Shomrim, CNN was told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued the cash flow to Hamas, despite concerns raised from within his own government.

Qatar has vowed not to stop those payments. Qatari minister of state for foreign affairs Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al-Khulaifi told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday that his government will continue to make payments to Gaza to support the enclave, as it has been doing for years.

“We’re not going to change our mandate. Our mandate is our continuous help and support for our brothers and sisters of Palestine. We will continue to do it systematically as we did it before,” Al-Khulaifi said.

Israeli sources responded by pointing out that successive governments had facilitated the transfer of money to Gaza for humanitarian reasons and that Netanyahu had acted decisively against Hamas after the October 7 attacks.

Here’s what we know about those payments and Israel’s role in facilitating them.

When did the Qatari payments start?

In 2018, Qatar began making monthly payments to the Gaza Strip. Some $15 million were sent into Gaza in cash-filled suitcases – delivered by the Qataris through Israeli territory after months of negotiation with Israel.

The payments started after the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinian government in the Israeli occupied West Bank that is a rival of Hamas, decided to cut salaries of government employees in Gaza in 2017, an Israeli government source with knowledge of the matter told CNN at the time.

The PA opposed the Qatari funding at the time, which Hamas said was meant for the payment of public salaries as well as medical purposes.

Israel approved the deal in a security cabinet meeting in August 2018, when Netanyahu was serving his previous tenure as premier.

Even then, Netanyahu was criticized by his coalition partners for the deal and for being too soft on Hamas.

The prime minister defended the initiative at the time, saying the deal was made “in coordination with security experts to return calm to (Israeli) villages of the south, but also to prevent a humanitarian disaster (in Gaza).”

Ahmad Majdalani, an Executive Committee member at the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank, accused the United States of orchestrating the payment.

The US was aware of the Qatari payments to Hamas, a former senior State Department official involved in the region told CNN on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Qatar was prepared to provide funds to the Gaza Strip through Hamas as early as the 2014 Israel-Hamas war to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there, the official said, and the US at the time left it up to the Israelis to decide whether they would permit this.

“We deferred completely to the Israelis as to whether this was something they wanted to do or not,” the official said.

Why did Israel back the payments?

Israeli and international media have reported that Netanyahu’s plan to continue allowing aid to reach Gaza through Qatar was in the hope that it might make Hamas an effective counterweight to the PA and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

PA officials said at the time the cash transfers encouraged division between Palestinian factions.

Major General Amos Gilad, a former senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told CNN the plan was backed by the prime minister, but not by the Israeli intelligence community. There was also some belief that it would “weaken Palestinian sovereignty,” he said. There was also an illusion, he added, that “if you fed them (Hamas) with money, they would be tamed.”

Major General Amos Gilad, a former senior Israeli Defense Ministry official.

Shlomo Brom, a former deputy to Israel’s national security adviser, told the New York Times that an empowered Hamas helped Netanyahu avoid negotiating over a Palestinian state, saying the division of the Palestinians helped him make the case that he had no partner for peace in the Palestinians, thus avoiding pressure for peace talks that could lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The former State Department official said that after the 2014 war, Israel felt it was better off with Hamas controlling Gaza as opposed to multiple Islamist groups, or leaving it in a political vacuum.

“It was our impression that the Israelis were comfortable with keeping Hamas in power in a weakened form,” the official said. “Our understanding was that Hamas was the lesser of a whole bunch of bad options in Gaza,” the official added, noting that at least the competing PA could keep Hamas out of the West Bank.

Naftali Bennett, a former Israeli prime minister, told CNN Sunday that after years of flagging his concerns to the Netanyahu government when he was minister of education, he stopped the suitcase cash transfers when he became prime minister in 2021.

“I stopped the cash suitcases because I believe that horrendous mistake – to allow Hamas to have all these suitcases full of cash, that goes directly to reordering themselves against Israelis. Why would we feed them cash to kill us?” Bennett asked.

The cash payments stopped, but the transfer of funds to Gaza continued under Bennett’s leadership, according to the New York Times.

An Israeli official told CNN that any suggestion that Netanyahu wanted to maintain a “moderately weakened” Hamas was “utterly false” and that he had acted to weaken Hamas “significantly.”

“He led three powerful military operations against Hamas which killed thousands of terrorists and senior Hamas commanders,” the official said. “Successive Israeli governments before, during and after Netanyahu’s governments enabled money to go to Gaza. Not in order to strengthen Hamas but to prevent a humanitarian crisis by supporting critical infrastructure, including water and sewage systems to prevent the spread of disease and enable daily life.”

Has Netanyahu faced a backlash?

Netanyahu has come under increasing criticism as the depth of his government’s involvement in the move, as well as the motivations for it, come to light again.

The funding deal is one reason why many Israelis today place part of the blame for the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Netanyahu personally. Numerous people told CNN they believed that allowing the payments made Hamas stronger and, ultimately, made the brutal attacks worse.

“The premier’s policy of treating the terror group as a partner, at the expense of (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud) Abbas and Palestinian statehood, has resulted in wounds that will take Israel years to heal from,” wrote Tal Schneider in an opinion piece in the Times of Israel on October 8, a day after Hamas’ devastating attack.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett

Gilad, the former Israeli defense official, said he was among those to argue against allowing money to reach Hamas, saying the permitted cash flow over the years was a “dramatic, tragic mistake.”

With the funds, “they could take care of the population. They could take care of the military enhancement, and build up their capabilities,” Gilad said last week.

Criticism of Netanyahu among Israelis soared after the attack, with many blaming the prime minister for failing to prevent it.

What backlash has Qatar faced?

Qatar maintains close ties with both Hamas and Western states, including the United States. It has come under harsh criticism for allowing the Iran-backed group to establish a political office in Doha, which has been operative since 2012.

But it has also proven useful to Israel, having played a leading role in the release of hostages kidnapped on October 7 and held by Hamas in Gaza.

But some Israeli officials have pointed to Qatar as among those responsible for the attack, saying the Gulf Arab state is supporting Hamas.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen accused Qatar of financing Hamas and harboring its leaders in October.

“Qatar, which finance and harbor of Hamas’ leaders, could influence and enable the immediate and unconditional release of all, of all hostages held by the terrorists. You, members of the international community should demand Qatar to do just that,” Cohen said at a high-level UN meeting.

Qatar has rejected accusations made by Israeli officials, warning that “these provocative statements” could undermine mediation efforts and even “endanger lives.”

Gilad also blamed Qatar, saying the Gulf state “gave Hamas 1 billion shekels per year ($30 million per month)… and they have used it to enhance, to cement their grip on Gaza “For them (Hamas), it was like a relief. It was like oxygen,” he told CNN.

Qatar denies that those funds were intended for Hamas, saying they are meant as aid to pay salaries of workers in the besieged enclave.

The State Department official said that while the US has always been wary of Qatar’s ties with Hamas, as well as with the criticism from both inside and outside the US about sending money to Gaza through the militant group, it was clear that Qatar had “the most leverage” with the group.

The Gulf nation, which hosts a major US airbase, has also come under pressure in Congress. A bipartisan group of 113 US lawmakers sent a letter to President Joe Biden on October 16 asking him to put pressure on countries who support Hamas, including Qatar.

Al-Khulaifi, the Qatari minister who leads his country’s mediation in the Israel-Hamas war, said that his country “will continue to engage with regional and international partners to make sure that those funds reach out could have the most vulnerable and to the important and vital infrastructure.”

CNN’s Adam Pourahmadi, Tamar Michaelis, Pallabi Munsi and Ivana Kottasova contributed to this report.