Inside story'Biden realized there would be no pause without the hostages'

Behind the scenes of the intense talks that led to the Israel-Hamas hostage deal

A multilateral group set up by Qatar shortly after Hamas onslaught proves effective, thanks to personal involvement from Biden throughout rollercoaster US-brokered negotiations

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Families and friends of about 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring them home during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Families and friends of about 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring them home during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

On October 13, US President Joe Biden held a Zoom call with the families of some of the hostages being held by terrorists in Gaza, doing so even before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did.

The call set the stage for Washington’s intensive efforts to secure the release of the hostages, which climaxed before dawn on Wednesday when Israel and Hamas announced that they had agreed to the terms of a Qatar-brokered deal that would see 50 Israeli women and children released in exchange for a four-day ceasefire.

“It was one of the most gut-wrenching things I think I’ve ever experienced in that office,” said a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on Tuesday evening, referring to the October Zoom call.

Biden gave time for each family member to “let out their emotions and tell stories about their missing loved ones who had been taken by Hamas terrorists six days earlier,” the administration official said.

At this point, hostage negotiations were in their infant stages.

Qatar had reached out to the US and Israel shortly after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, which killed roughly 1,200 people in southern Israel, and offered to help secure the release of the roughly 240 hostages who had been abducted.

A woman takes a photo of a poster showing Israelis held captive in Gaza plastered underneath a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with calls for the Israeli leader to reach a deal to bring them home, in Tel Aviv, November 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Doha proposed that a multilateral “cell” be established with representatives from Qatar, the US and Israel in order to negotiate “very secretly” toward an agreement, the administration official said, adding that CIA chief William Burns, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk and Biden’s assistant Josh Geltzer played an essential role on the US side.

Mossad chief David Barnea led the talks on the Israeli side with assistance from Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi.

Much of Qatar’s contacts were led by its Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. Egypt also played a crucial role in “filling in the gaps” and was led by intel chief Abbas Kamel, the US administration official said.

Alongside having his team of aides working on the issue around the clock, Biden was personally involved at various critical stages.

He met in person with the families of the hostages during his October 18 visit to Israel.

US President Joe Biden meets with victims’ relatives and first responders who were directly affected by the Hamas attacks, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

At that point, Israeli ministers had been pushing to maintain a full siege on Gaza, and Biden worked to convince Netanyahu to begin allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt three days later.

Trial run

On October 20, Hamas agreed to release hostages Judith and Natalie Raanan — dual US-Israeli nationals — in a “pilot process” that tested Qatar’s ability to deliver.

During their release, the multilateral cell was able to track the mother and daughter as they made their way from Gaza to the border, the administration official said.

Biden phoned Natalie’s father once she crossed into Israel and subsequently spoke with her and Judith.

The successful release “gave us some confidence that Qatar really could deliver through the cell we had established,” the administration official said.

The next day, Hamas notified the cell that it was prepared to release a larger number of women and children if Israel agreed to hold off on its impending ground incursion, a second US official said.

This handout picture courtesy of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, taken on October 20, 2023, shows Natalie Raanan (L) and her mother Judith Raanan speaking on the phone with US President Joe Biden, after they were held hostage and later released by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group. (US Embassy in Jerusalem/AFP)

On October 22, another two hostages were released: Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85.

Biden shifts gears

When Washington inquired of Jerusalem whether it would be prepared to hold off on its ground operation, Israel declined to do so, noting that Hamas had yet to provide proof of life for the vast majority of hostages and was simply trying to buy time, the US official said.

Still, the cell’s efforts continued. Barnea held multiple calls with Burns, and Biden spoke with Netanyahu four times between October 20 and October 25.

While the US had been pushing for humanitarian pauses in the conflict, it was at this stage that Biden recognized that Israel would only agree to temporarily halt its fighting if it was part of a large hostage deal. Recognizing that all five members and observers of Netanyahu’s war cabinet were “united and unanimous” on this stance, the US adapted accordingly, the administration official said.

On October 25, McGurk held a call with the Qatari prime minister in which the two, for the first time, discussed the idea of a phased release of abducted women and children in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. McGurk then briefed Biden on the call, and the president asked to speak directly with the Qatari foreign minister to push the deal forward.

“The Israelis rightfully insisted that all women and children be released in this first phase, and we agreed,” the administration official recalled, saying that the US demanded through Qatar that Hamas provide proof of life and identifying information on the women and children being held in Gaza.

Israeli Noa Argamani is seen being kidnapped by Hamas terrorists during the massacre at the Supernova desert rave in the south on October 7, 2023. (Screenshot used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Hamas later passed along to Qatar that it could guarantee the release of 50 hostages but refused to provide identifying information on any of them. It eventually came up with information on 10 hostages, but this was insufficient for the US, the administration official said.

Holding Qatar’s feet to the fire

On October 27, Israel launched its ground incursion in what Qatari officials publicly said significantly complicated the negotiations.

But the IDF invasion was a phased one, starting only with northern Gaza and making it easier to implement a truce later on if the government approved one.

After nearly two weeks with little progress, Burns met in Doha with the Qatari premier and Barnea to discuss an initial outline for a deal, which still had some gaping holes as Hamas had yet to identify the hostages it was holding.

Unsatisfied with the pace of the talks, Biden called Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani for the first time since the outbreak of the war and “made very clear that where we were was not enough,” the administration official said.

During their “very intense call,” Biden told the emir that the sides would not be able to move forward without identifying information, and the Qatari leader “made it very clear that he was going to do everything he possibly could to get this done,” the administration official recalled.

Shortly after that call, Hamas produced identifying information on 50 women and children it said it could release in the first stage of a deal.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, left, speaks during a meeting with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

During a November 14 phone call between Biden and Netanyahu — one of 13 held since the war’s outbreak — “it was understood that we could move forward with this deal,” the administration official said, adding that Netanyahu offered his initial backing before Israel’s war cabinet voted in support of it the next day.

‘Comms go dark’

McGurk met with Netanyahu in Israel the next day, and the premier asked that Biden again press the Qatari emir to help nail down final terms for the deal. “We need this deal,” Netanyahu told McGurk as the two wrapped up their meeting, according to the second US official.

But just as talks appeared to be nearing the finish line, “comms went dark” and Hamas stopped communicating with Qatari and Egyptian mediators, the administration official said.

The terror group got back in touch only to threaten to bolt the talks over the IDF’s entry into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, under which Israel says Hamas has dug a central command center, according to the second US official.

“There’s certainly no good faith when you’re negotiating with Hamas — a terrorist group that is holding toddlers and babies hostage,” said the administration official.

Israel continued its operations around Shifa, arguing that Hamas would only be prepared to release hostages if it was under significant pressure.

IDF soldiers operate at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in a handout photo distributed on November 15, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Closing time

On November 17, the talks resumed and Biden again called the Qatari emir urging him to seal the agreement.

The next day, McGurk met with the Qatari prime minister in Doha to go over elements of the deal. Qatar received final comments from Hamas, and Burns was dialed in to discuss the six-page deal, which included “details on implementation for both sides, so that nothing is left to chance,” the administration official said, adding that the hostages will exit Gaza via several different locations.

McGurk had one more meeting in Cairo on November 19 with Egyptian intel chief Kamel, who helped close several remaining gaps before the deal was passed along to Israel for its approval.

Speaking while the Israeli cabinet was still weighing the proposal, the administration official said “things can still go wrong” but that they were still “cautiously optimistic.”

They noted that “some fairly significant issues [were] addressed by the Hamas side over the last 48 hours, which gave the Israelis confidence to move forward.”

White House Middle East Brett McGurk (left) meets with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, on November 19, 2023. (Qatar News Agency/AFP)

Following the Wednesday predawn vote by the cabinet, the Israeli public will have 24 hours by law to petition against any of the planned prisoner releases, though no reversal is expected and the deal is expected to go into effect on Thursday morning.

Terms of the deal

The deal provides for the gradual release of 50 kidnapped women and children in exchange for a four-day ceasefire and offers additional days of respite if Hamas releases more hostages. There is an “expectation for further releases… and a clear aim to bring all hostages home to their families,” according to the administration official.

In addition to the “full pause of military operations” for four days, the administration official expressed hope that there will be a similar pause in hostilities on Israel’s northern border, which has seen repeated exchanges of fire between the IDF and the Hezbollah terror group.

“We hope the pause will also result in a real surge in humanitarian assistance… Our teams have been working to prepare for that moment,” the official said, noting that aid groups will also be able to operate more freely during the ensuing period.

The humanitarian aid will amount to at least 200 trucks per day and include large amounts of fuel. But the administration official expressed confidence that Hamas will not be able to “resupply from the outside during this phase” due to the “rigid inspection mechanism for everything going into Gaza”

Avigail Idan (left) 3, shown here with her father Roee and brother Michael, was taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Kfar Aza (Courtesy)

Israel also agreed to release 150 Palestinians — most of them minors — from its prisons out of a list of 300 underage and female terror convicts, none of whom were convicted of murder.

Among the hostages to be released are three Americans, including 3-year-old Avigail Mor Idan — whose parents were murdered in front of her during the Hamas massacre — and two other dual US-Israeli nationals. They’re among the 10 US citizens who remain unaccounted for.

While the initial phase of the deal is only designed to release 50 abducted women and children, Israel believes there are another 30 in Gaza, excluding female soldiers. Hamas has said it will not release soldiers at this stage.

Hamas will have the ability to “identify and collect” additional women and children, the administration official said, indicating that the Gaza-ruling terror group could seize hostages from Palestinian Islamic Jihad or private crime families who also abducted Israelis on October 7.

“Whether hostages are held by Islamic Jihad or Hamas, it’s up to Hamas to release everybody,” the US administration official asserted. “We do anticipate that it’ll be more than 50 [who will ultimately be released], but I just don’t want to put a number on it.”

The administration official acknowledged that male hostages, IDF soldiers and foreign nationals won’t be released during the first four days of the ceasefire, but they said that the deal is structured so that they can be freed subsequently.

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