40 hostages, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, 6-week truce

Hamas says it won’t compromise on key demands as US leans into hostage talks

Qatar insists there is reason for optimism, but sources tell Times of Israel serious gaps remain; Israel’s security cabinet to discuss potential deal Tuesday

In Tel Aviv, a woman walks past photographs of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, on April 8, 2024. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)
In Tel Aviv, a woman walks past photographs of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, on April 8, 2024. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

Amid intensive US efforts to achieve a deal for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7, both Israeli and Palestinian officials tempered optimism on Monday around progress in Cairo talks.

The deal under discussion would provide for the release of some 40 Israeli captives in return for a temporary truce and the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners, including some convicted of deadly attacks.

In separate interviews, several Hamas officials offered varying comments regarding the state of the talks, ranging from rejection of the latest US-drafted, Israeli-backed terms to assertions that the terror group was still studying the proposal. However, none of those speaking were believed to be among the handful of Hamas leaders actually involved in decision-making.

One Hamas official speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters said negotiations have been at a deadlock due to Israel’s refusal to agree to Hamas’s demands for a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza, the unrestricted return of all Palestinians to the northern Strip and the lifting of a 17-year-old blockade to allow speedy reconstruction of the coastal enclave.

These steps took precedence over Israel’s prime demand for a release of hostages in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, said this official. “Regarding the exchange of prisoners, Hamas was and is willing to be more flexible, but there is no flexibility over our… main demands,” he said.

Israel has repeatedly dismissed Hamas’s conditioning of any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to end the war, and has said it will resume its campaign to dismantle Hamas as soon as any deal is carried out.

Early Tuesday morning, the terror group issued a statement confirming that it had received Israel’s latest proposal through Qatari and Egyptian brokers. It called the offer “intransigent,” claiming it did not meet any of its demands. Nonetheless, it said it would study it further before delivering a response to the mediators.

File – CIA chief William Burns, Egyptian intel chief Abbas Kamel, Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. (Collage/AP/AFP)

As for the Israelis, an official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel that significant gaps remain between the sides.

Hamas has not issued a list of the Palestinian prisoners it wants released, and Israel has not sent a list of who it is willing to let go in a potential deal, the Israeli official said late Monday, claiming that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar feels he currently has the upper hand.

The latest discussions have been focused, in large part, on reaching a compromise regarding the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza after they were displaced during the early months of the war when the IDF offensive began.

The US is applying significant pressure on Qatar to push Hamas toward accepting a deal, according to Hebrew media reports. Israel feels Qatar has not leaned hard enough on Hamas and sees Egypt as the preferred mediator, the Israeli official said.

It is believed that 129 hostages are still held in Gaza of the 253 abducted on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and committing wholesale atrocities, including sexual assault.

For his part, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that negotiators were still waiting for Hamas to respond to the latest proposal, brokered over the weekend in Cairo.

Kirby confirmed that CIA chief William Burns was in Cairo leading the US negotiating team in the talks. “We are waiting for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s response. It could take a few days,” Kirby said.

People visit Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on April 7, 2024, six months after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw terrorists kill some 1,200 people and seize 253 hostages – 129 of whom are still held hostage in Gaza. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

Speaking to the Qatari-owned Al-Araby Al-Jadeed news outlet, Egyptian sources said the proposal does not include a commitment to a permanent ceasefire.

Netanyahu on Monday said a date has been set for an offensive into the southern city of Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza, in a statement that could also be construed as an attempt to apply pressure on Hamas to temper its demands.

Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive after they withdrew from Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Unconfirmed reports of the terms

The Axios website cited three unnamed Israeli officials in reporting that 40 hostages would be freed under the first phase of the proposed deal, during a six-week truce.

According to that report, Israel would release 700 Palestinian security prisoners, including more than 100 serving life for attacks that killed Israelis.

The officials said that Hamas has been told to provide a list of 40 living hostages that it will release, and to compromise on the number and identity of Palestinian prisoners it wants in return.

Israel, for its part, would have to compromise in allowing the return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza.

Israeli soldiers seen on the border with the Gaza Strip on April 7, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Hamas is also demanding that Israel withdraw its forces from a land corridor connecting the northern and southern regions of Gaza to enable movement between the two, Axios reported.

But Israel was said to insist that soldiers remain at the so-called Netzarim Corridor, which crosses Gaza from the Be’eri area in southern Israel to the Strip’s coast, and that those passing through undergo inspection to ensure they are not Hamas members.

One of the Israeli officials told Axios that Jerusalem had also agreed to another compromise related to the return of displaced Palestinians, without giving further details.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that, under an emerging proposal, IDF forces would remain 500 yards from approved routes to the north, instead of more directly inspecting each returning civilian.

Israel’s security cabinet is set to meet on Tuesday night to discuss the latest proposal.

Channel 12 reported that Hamas claims it would not be able to free 40 living hostages who are women, children, older men or sick — meeting the so-called “humanitarian” designation of the first potential phase of a deal. The report noted that Hamas made the same claim during talks that produced a November weeklong truce that included the release of 105 hostages.

A Walla News report, also noting that Hamas claims it does not hold 40 living hostages in the humanitarian category, said Israel believes this may be the case, and suggested Hamas make up the number by freeing soldiers and male hostages, with Israel freeing a larger number of security prisoners in return.

Several reports also said negotiators are also reviewing the option of observing an initial three-day truce, with no other obligations, over the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan later this week.

Channel 12 also reported, without citing sources, that there is criticism within the IDF of the emerging deal, as the recent withdrawal from the city of Khan Younis and an increase in aid deliveries will take pressure off Hamas, to the advantage of Sinwar.

The Kan public broadcaster similarly cited unnamed Israeli officials as lamenting that the terror group is making gains on its demands for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, along with more aid deliveries, but without yet providing Israel anything in return.

Palestinians walk past a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes, in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Channel 13 cited a senior Israeli official as saying that the US-drafted proposal includes Hamas providing a full list of living hostages.

A total of 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 12 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the Israeli military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 34 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

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