Government: Deal is 'first stage' in return of all hostages

Cabinet okays deal for release of 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for 4-day Gaza truce

150 underage or female Palestinian terrorists to go free in return for abductees; halt could be extended by a day for each additional 10 Israeli hostages, then war will resume

Family and supporters of the estimated 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza complete the final leg of a five-day solidarity rally calling for their return, from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
Family and supporters of the estimated 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza complete the final leg of a five-day solidarity rally calling for their return, from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

In a pivotal vote early Wednesday morning, the full Israeli cabinet approved an agreement to secure the release by Hamas of roughly 50 Israeli hostages who were abducted and taken into Gaza during the terror group’s October 7 terror onslaught. Some 240 hostages are being held overall. The deal was approved by 35 votes to three. A first group of some 12-13 hostages could be released as soon as Thursday.

Despite expressing earlier opposition to the agreement, the far-right Religious Zionism party voted in favor, with only members of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit faction voting against.

An Israeli government official briefing reporters on Tuesday said the deal was expected to see the release of 50 living Israeli citizens — children, mothers and other women — in groups of 12-13 people over four days. In exchange, Israel has agreed to a ceasefire for those four days, for the first time since the outbreak of the war, as well as the release of 150 teenage and female Palestinian security prisoners. The halt in fighting could be extended by one additional day for each additional group of 10 hostages freed, after which Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas in Gaza is to resume.

The government confirmed the terms of the agreement following the vote, without offering details regarding any of the other Israeli concessions. Later Wednesday morning, it released a list of 300 Palestinian security prisoners from whom the initial 150 will be selected, and the remainder of whom could be freed if further Israeli hostages are let go. None of them has been convicted of murder.

“The Israeli government is committed to bringing all the abductees home. Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal, under which at least 50 abductees – women and children – will be released over a span of four days, during which there will be a lull in the fighting,” the statement said.

“The release of every 10 additional abductees will result in an additional day of respite,” it added. “The Israeli government, the IDF and the security forces will continue the war to return all the abductees, complete the elimination of Hamas and ensure that Gaza does not present any further threat to the State of Israel.”

In this screenshot of a video released by the government, ministers meet to vote on a hostage agreement with Hamas, November 21, 2023. The agreement was approved early on November 22. (Screen capture/X)

The release will take place in two stages, with multiple phases in each stage. In the first stage, Israel will release 150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 50 hostages. This will take place in four phases, with at least 10 hostages being released in each phase, and the prisoners released only once the hostages are back in Israeli custody.

The decision authorizes the war cabinet to decide on the identity of prisoners to be released in each phase, taken from the list provided. The war cabinet is also authorized to determine the timing of each phase as well as the end of each phase, and the entire exchange and pause in fighting is limited to a maximum of 10 days from the end of the first phase, the cabinet decision states.

The vast majority, 287 of the 300 security prisoners scheduled for possible release, are males aged 18 and under — most of them held for rioting and rock-throwing in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. The other 13 prisoners are adult women, most of them convicted of attempted terror stabbings.

The Almagor Terror Victims Association said Wednesday morning that it would file a petition to the High Court of Justice at noon against the deal. In a letter to Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Almagor founder Meir Indoor together with board member Dr. Aryeh Bachrach wrote that the organization believes “the same landmines and surprises in the agreement were [present] in almost every other [hostage] deal in the past.”

The High Court will hear any petition filed during the course of Wednesday, and it is widely expected to reject such appeals, as it did with petitions against the deal to free Gilad Shalit from Gaza in 2011 in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.

A statement from Hamas claimed that “the provisions of this agreement were formulated according to the vision of the resistance and its determinants that aim to serve our people and enhance their steadfastness in the face of aggression.”

Israel also agreed to allow additional fuel into Gaza as well as significant amounts of humanitarian aid, which have been restricted due to the ongoing war.

Hamas said that as part of the ceasefire, Israel will stop drone flights over southern Gaza and only carry them out in the north of the enclave for six hours a day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The terror group clarified that while it had agreed to a ceasefire, “our fingers will remain on the trigger, and our victorious fighters will remain on the lookout to defend our people and repel the occupation.”

Israelis with family members held abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since October 7 attend a Knesset National Security Committee hearing, November 20, 2023. Seated left is Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat is one of the hostages. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the Israeli cabinet meeting, which began Tuesday night and continued until early Wednesday, all the security agencies — the IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad — expressed their support for the deal. Hebrew media said this endorsement convinced several ministers who had been on the fence, including National Unity Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to back the agreement.

The government official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that certain conditions be part of the deal, including the potential release of further hostages after the four-day pause, a commitment by Hamas to identify and locate hostages held by other terror groups in the Strip, and a refusal to release Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted of murder.

Israel believes Hamas could potentially locate some 30 more Israeli mothers and children beyond the initial 50, and the halt in fighting would be extended by a day for each group of 10 more Israeli hostages who are located and freed, the government official said. Hamas is claiming it cannot immediately track down around 10 children taken from Israel during its shock October 7 attack.

The developing hostage deal will see the release of 30 children and 20 women, including eight who are mothers of some of the children, held by Hamas in Gaza, Hebrew media reported.

Hamas has said it has 210 of the about 240 hostages abducted last month; there are about 40 children held hostage, not all of whom are held by Hamas. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group is said to be holding many of the remaining hostages.

Hamas terrorists bring a hostage into Shifa Hospital as seen on surveillance footage from October 7, 2023. (IDF)

The agreement will see the Red Cross given access to the abductees who will remain as hostages in Gaza, including supplying them with medicine, Netanyahu’s office said on Tuesday.

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

Channel 12 news reported that Israel demanded those released would only be Israeli citizens, ostensibly leaving out the several dozen foreign workers from East Asian countries who are among the roughly 240 hostages held in Gaza.

The government official said the deal has nothing to do with hostages who are not Israelis and that other governments may be working on separate agreements.

Hamas said during the talks on a deal that it would not release any IDF soldiers.

The deal would see a complete pause of Israel Defense Forces operations on the ground in the Gaza Strip and an end to Israeli air operations over the territory, except in the north, where they would only halt for six hours daily, sources said, including an Israeli official.

Confirming the agreement, Qatar said the start time will be announced in the next 24 hours. A statement early Wednesday morning from the Qatari foreign ministry described the talks that produced the agreement as having been mediated by Egypt, the US and Qatar for a “humanitarian pause.”

Illustrative: Black smoke rises from an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Aita al-Shaab, a Lebanese border village with Israel, as it is seen from Rmeish village in south Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Channel 12 also reported that the Prime Minister’s Office has developed a process through which the hostages will be released and transferred to Israel.

First, Hamas is to hand over the hostages to the Red Cross, after which they will be transferred to IDF representatives. The hostages will then undergo an initial medical check by authorities, and then be taken to one of five isolated medical centers across Israel to meet with their families.

In the fourth stage, medical and defense authorities will determine together whether at least some of the hostages can be debriefed. In the final stage, the hostages undergo a debriefing with security officials before eventually being released.

Netanyahu said in a statement before the cabinet vote that the war against Hamas will continue until all of Israel’s goals are achieved, namely to topple the Gaza-ruling terror group, secure the release of all the hostages, and ensure that there’s no further threat from the enclave to Israel’s security.

“We are at war, and the war will continue until all our goals are achieved,” he said, adding that the hostages’ return was a “sacred priority and I am committed to it.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a National Security Committee meeting at the Knesset, November 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Before us is a difficult decision but the right one,” the prime minister added. “We will not rest until everyone is returned. The war has stages and the return of the hostages will have stages.”

Defense Minister Gallant said in separate statement before the meeting that Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza is a key factor in “dialing up the pressure” on Hamas to negotiate.

“Without the pressure and the continued pressure [on Hamas], there will be no chance” to secure the release of the next groups of hostages, he said, vowing that once the ceasefire is over, Israel’s operations in Gaza will resume “in full force.”

Minister Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet, said the proposed hostage deal “is the basis for continuing the necessary operational efforts [in Gaza], including in the southern arena and possibly in other arenas.”

“I will say honestly – this [hostage deal] is a difficult outline, it is painful, but it is also right,” said Gantz.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads his Religious Zionism party’s Knesset faction meeting, November 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

The final vote was 35-3. Otzma Yehudit’s three ministers were the only cabinet members to vote against the agreement.

Though it ended up backing the deal, Religious Zionism said ahead of the vote that Hamas is desperate for a ceasefire and the agreement gives the terror group exactly what it needs. The far-right faction also claimed the agreement abandons the remaining hostages. Religious Zionism said the only way to secure the release of all hostages is through an uncompromising military approach.

In its own statement, Otzma Yehudit said that Hamas’s consent to the deal proves that it is bad and warned it would lead to an increase of international pressure on Israel not to resume fighting after the ceasefire expires.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties backed the deal, along with Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s National Unity party.

Several tense exchanges occurred during the cabinet session, with Hebrew media reports saying Gantz responded angrily to Smotrich for expressing concern Hamas will seek to extend the ceasefire.

“Do you trust [Yahya] Sinwar more than us?” Gantz was quoted as saying, referring to the Hamas chief in Gaza who Israel has accused of helping mastermind the October 7 massacres.

In another exchange, Likud ministers Miki Zohar and Gila Gamliel confronted Ben Gvir for holding a faction meeting before the cabinet convened, after announcing his ultranationalist party would vote against the agreement. Gamliel reportedly stressed to Ben Gvir the importance of unity.

“But we are not united,” Ben Gvir said. “This is a decision with generational damage that will come back to hurt us badly.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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