Israel and Hamas appear close to hostage release deal, say officials

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, right, holds a meeting in Doha on Sunday with the US’s Brett McGurk. Photograph: Qatar News Agency/AFP/Getty Images
Agreement could involve limited ceasefire in Gaza Strip and release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails

Israel and Hamas appear to be edging towards a deal that would see the release of a significant number of hostages, possibly in return for a limited ceasefire and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

Senior US and Israeli officials, as well as the Qatari prime minister, all suggested an agreement was close on Sunday, although observers have cautioned that public statements during such negotiations are often misleading and any potential deal could easily collapse.

The Qatari prime minister said that only minor differences between Hamas and Israel remained to be resolved. The Israeli ambassador to Washington said Israel hoped a significant number of hostages could be released by Hamas. “I’m hopeful we can have a deal in the coming days,” Michael Herzog said in an interview on ABC on Sunday.

Qatar has been at the centre of mediation efforts to reach an agreement that would lead to the release of large numbers of hostages, starting with children and women. A humanitarian pause lasting as long as five days would be agreed to allow the transport of the hostages and some supply of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Source: Institute for the Study of War with AEI’s Critical Threats Project. 18 November 2023

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, at a joint press conference in Doha with Josep Borrell, the EU’s external affairs chief, said: “The challenges facing the agreement are just practical and logistical. There has been good progress in the past few days.”

He added: “The deal is going through ups and downs from time to time throughout the last few weeks. But I think that you know I’m now more confident that we are close enough to reach a deal that can bring the people safely back to their home.” He gave no timetable.

The White House deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer, said any agreement to free “considerably more than 12” hostages would be likely to also include an extended pause in the fighting and allow for the distribution of humanitarian assistance in Gaza.

A staged release would be the first de-escalatory step since Hamas launched an assault on Israel on 7 October, during which it captured more than 200 hostages and took them to Gaza. So far, only four hostages have been released, in two tranches. It is thought 239 people from 26 different countries are still being held, including some dual nationals.

Hamas has claimed that as many as 30 hostages have been killed by Israeli bombing of Gaza, but there is no independent verification of this and the claim may have been made to deter Israel from continuing its assault.

On Sunday, Israel released images apparently from Shifa hospital’s security cameras that showed two hostages being brought into the complex at 10.55am on the day of the attacks last month. A military spokesperson said the current whereabouts of the two hostages, said to be a Thai and a Nepali national, were unknown. Israel also published video of what it described as a tunnel dug by Palestinian militants under Shifa hospital.

The Washington Post, citing people familiar with plans for the deal, reported that Israel, the US and Hamas militants had reached a tentative agreement to free dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said no deal had been reached. However, he is under domestic pressures to free the hostages. The challenge of doing this while completing the goal of eliminating Hamas as a military force capable of striking Israel again has led to disagreements among Israeli policymakers and the security establishment as well as society more broadly.

Senior military officers say the two objectives can be reconciled as military pressure on Hamas would lead to concessions over hostages. It is not clear that all Israeli cabinet ministers, who will have significant influence on the ultimate decision on a deal, agree.

Israeli media have reported divisions among senior ministers, with some favouring accepting the deal reportedly tabled by Qatar before international pressure or rising military casualties weaken Israel’s bargaining position. Others argue that Israel should hold out for better terms and that to accept those on offer would set a precedent for future negotiations to obtain the freedom of any remaining hostages.

Though there has been no official comment on the split, one source with knowledge of the progress of negotiations described the reports as “credible”.

Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate a 2011 deal that freed an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, told the Guardian any public statements or leaks about talks should not be taken at face value and that a deal could fall apart during the implementation phase.

“There have been hesitations within the Israeli cabinet. The Israelis are in a kind of gamble here. There is the question of whether the military pressure helps the hostages or not. I don’t think any one really knows,” Baskin said. “Any public statements are all part of the negotiations. Until there is an agreement that is actually implemented, there is no agreement. And implementation will be complex.”

Brett McGurk, the US president’s senior adviser on the Middle East, said on Saturday the onus was on Hamas to release the hostages, and if it did so, there would be a humanitarian pause as well as a considerable increase in the flow of aid. He was speaking at an IISS security conference in Bahrain. The Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said at the same conference that no preconditions should be set for a humanitarian pause.

Details of the negotiations, in an outline six-page paper, suggested any deal would include the release of some Palestinian political prisoners – the key demand being made by the Hamas military command. Disputes have included the length of any ceasefire and whether women deemed to be combatants would be included in the first releases.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been involved in identifying and verifying the identity of hostages. It has tried to keep its role under the radar so as to ensure deal goes ahead.

Humanitarian agencies, both NGOs and government-run, are preparing to rush emergency aid into Gaza if a humanitarian pause is agreed, but they admit they face huge difficulties since they do know how long the pause may extend, or how many crossings will be open. The logistical difficulties, given the needs and the indefinite brief pause, are described as a nightmare.

Sheikh Mohmammed criticised Israel, saying: “The disaster continues to worsen in Gaza in light of the international community’s inability to curb the aggression. The forced eviction that happened in the al-Shifa [hospital] complex is a crime, and unfortunately we did not hear any condemnation from the international community. Massacres continue against civilians, and there is no respect for international laws and norms.”

He added: “There is a double standard in many countries regarding what is happening to our brothers in Gaza. The massacres – the most recent of which took place at al-Fakhura school – prove Israel’s lack of respect for international laws.”

Borrell said Hamas had committed “the biggest massacre of Jews since the second world war” but that the UN had described what was happening in Gaza as carnage. He said: “One horror does not justify another horror.”

He said the vote of the UN security council last week calling for a pause was not just words but obligatory. He said the resolution had not been implemented and he had told Israel the number of children being killed showed that much more needed to be done to prevent deaths. He said any humanitarian stage needed to be the first step to a political stage. “There is no point in providing food for one dinner and then to be killed the following day,” he said.

A number of countries, especially Arab states, have positioned aid so that it can be brought into Gaza through the Rafah crossing in Egypt and are still pressing Israel to allow goods through a crossing on its border.

Borrell praised the work of Qatar to bring about peace. “Qatar has emerged as a key negotiator not only in the Middle East, but in many other crises,” he said, citing Afghanistan, Iran and the release of captured children in Ukraine.

Elsewhere, Yemen’s Houthis said on Sunday they had seized an Israeli ship in the southern Red Sea and taken it to a Yemeni port. Israel said earlier the Iran-aligned group had seized a ship in the Red Sea with no Israeli owners or crew.