Israel said to mull freeing inmates jailed for serious crimes

Hamas’s Haniyeh arrives in Cairo as reports swirl of talks on new truce, hostage deal

Amid ‘intensive’ negotiations, head of Palestinian terror group’s politburo said set to discuss options for agreement, including proposal to free 40 hostages for weeklong truce

This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on December 20, 2023, shows Qatar-based Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking to journalists as he welcomes the Iranian foreign minister (not in the picture), in Doha. (Photo by Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP)
This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on December 20, 2023, shows Qatar-based Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking to journalists as he welcomes the Iranian foreign minister (not in the picture), in Doha. (Photo by Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP)

Hamas announced Wednesday morning that the leader of its political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, had arrived in Cairo to conduct talks with Egyptian officials on the latest developments in the war in Gaza and on “other files,” according to a statement released by the Palestinian terror group.

The talks have been widely reported to be set to focus on a possible ceasefire or truce in the Israel-Hamas war and a deal to release hostages held in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.

Haniyeh was due to meet Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and other officials for talks on “stopping the aggression and the war to prepare an agreement for the release of prisoners,” a source close to the terror group told AFP.

Haniyeh, based in Qatar, was accompanied by a “high-level” Hamas delegation and was set to discuss “the delivery of humanitarian aid, the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip and the return of displaced persons to their towns and villages in the north,” the source added.

The news agency reported that the Egypt talks would focus on proposals including a weeklong truce that would see the release of 40 Israeli hostages, including women, children and male noncombatants. Similar details were reported Tuesday night by Axios.

The truce would be open to extension if there is agreement on new conditions for further releases, the source said, adding that the proposals had been discussed between Qatar and Israel with the knowledge of the US administration.

Haniyeh’s visit is his second to Egypt since Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught, which triggered the ongoing war. He made a previous trip in early November.

People walk by photographs of civilians held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, at “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv. December 19, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hamas leaders have publicly said they will only free hostages in exchange for a permanent ceasefire, though reports in recent days have indicated talks for another short-term truce to release more hostages may be advancing.

The terror group, which rules Gaza, sent thousands of gunmen into Israel on October 7, who killed around 1,200 people and took some 240 hostages, mostly civilians.

It is believed that 128 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered along with three hostages who were mistakenly killed by the military. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 21 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

The Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that “intensive” talks for a ceasefire and hostage release were being held, brokered by Qatar and Egypt. Citing an unnamed person briefed on the matter, the report said Jerusalem “is insisting that women and infirm male hostages be included,” and that “Palestinians jailed for serious offenses could also be on the roster.”

However, an unnamed Israeli official told CNN that “for the time being, it’s still negotiations. There is nothing final.”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said Tuesday that Israel was weighing agreeing to a two-week temporary ceasefire to allow for a renewed hostage deal to take place.

Ignatius said that officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration want Israel to move to a less intense stage of battle soon, “ideally” within the next 11 days, despite US insistence that it is not putting a timetable on Israel’s military campaign.

Armed members of the Hamas terror group ride atop a humanitarian aid truck in Rafah, Gaza Strip, December 19, 2023. (AP)

His column also said Israel was exploring the possibility of creating “humanitarian islands” in northern Gaza as fighting increasingly shifts south.

It added that a 20-page document drawn up by the US State Department has laid out options for a postwar Gaza, increasingly managed by Palestinians.

It said security in Gaza could be handled by “Palestinians who aren’t affiliated with Hamas and are willing to cooperate with the Israeli troops still ringing the border. Ideally, this policing force would be bolstered by foreign troops, operating under a UN mandate.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that senior Hamas officials were in daily contact with top officials in rival Palestinian faction Fatah, about an alliance under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Fatah is the main party in the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank and ruled Gaza until it was ousted in 2007 by Hamas in a bloody coup.

Haniyeh and former Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal are in contact with top Fatah official Hussein Al-Sheikh, the report said. Also involved are Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah apparatchik exiled from Gaza who maintains powerful links in the Gulf and Egypt, and former Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad, the paper reported, citing Hamas official Husam Badran, also based in Doha.

Mohammad Dahlan during a TV interview on March 18, 2021 (video screenshot)

According to the report, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, ordered an end to the talks once he got wind of them. The disagreement underlines divisions between the goals of the Gaza-based group, which describes its raison d’etre as Israel’s destruction, and those of its Qatar-based politburo, which has seemingly shifted stances and claims it is now open to a political solution.

International actors, chief among them the United States, have envisioned the Palestinian Authority having a central role in governing postwar Gaza if and when Israel achieves its key military goal of toppling Hamas’s rule there. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hardliners in his government have been strongly pushing back against this, citing the PA’s failure to condemn Hamas’s massacres and the monthly stipends it pays to jailed terror convicts and families of dead assailants.

On Tuesday evening, all three major Hebrew TV networks reported Israel’s approach to negotiations, after what appeared to be a coordinated leak by government officials.

According to the networks, Israel wants a “humanitarian” deal to include women and the elderly. It also wants those of all ages who are physically or mentally ill to be released as part of the group that it believes can number 30-40 hostages.

Protesters hold photographs of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, as they rally to call for the government to find a means to bring the hostages home, outside the Kirya military HQ in Tel Aviv, December 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel is prepared to negotiate the number of days it will agree to hold its fire as well as the number and type of Palestinian prisoners it would release in exchange for the hostages, the reports said. It is also prepared to expand humanitarian zones as well as the amount of aid it would let into Gaza.

The deal would also include a certain concession on the military front, Channel 12 said, adding that the military censor had barred the network from elaborating further.

“Israel is willing to go a long way to return the hostages. The deal, if it goes through, will be difficult and will demand heavy prices. It’s still a long way off and it’s not certain it will succeed. In any case, the ball is currently in the mediators’ court,” a senior Israeli official was quoted as saying.

Monday night saw Hamas publish a new propaganda video showing three Israeli hostages. One man speaking in the video identified himself as 79-year-old Chaim Peri, who was abducted by Hamas from his Kibbutz Nir Oz home on October 7. The other two hostages were fellow Nir Oz residents Amiram Cooper, 84, and Yoram Metzger, 80.

Only Peri spoke in the video and there was no information indicating when it was filmed, though the men’s appearance indicated it was after some time in captivity.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari swiftly labeled the latest video as “atrocious terror.”

“It shows the cruelty of Hamas against elderly civilians, innocents, who require medical attention,” Hagari said during his daily press briefing Tuesday. “The world must work to allow medical aid and to verify their condition.”

On Tuesday evening, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group released a video showing two other hostages: Gadi Mozes, 79, and Elad Katzir, 47, both of Kibbutz Nir Oz.

Gianluca Pachhiani and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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