In Cairo, senior Hamas officials discuss hostage deal with Egyptian intelligence chief

Delegation said led by terror group’s Qatar-based political leader Ismail Haniyeh; Wall Street Journal reports Hamas demanding 150 security prisoners for each female soldier

Women attend a protest in Tel Aviv for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, February 1, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Women attend a protest in Tel Aviv for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, February 1, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A delegation of senior Hamas officials arrived in Cairo on Thursday for talks with Egyptian officials on a possible deal that would see the release of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza.

The delegation was led by Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in Qatar, and included senior members Mousa Abu Marzook and Khalil al-Hayya, the Qatar-based Al-Araby news outlet reported, citing an unnamed Egyptian source.

The Hamas officials met with the head of Egyptian intelligence, Major General Abbas Kamel, to discuss the details of a hostage deal proposal that was presented to the Gaza terror group earlier this week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators.

The outline of the deal was drawn up during a meeting in Paris last week in the presence of Israeli and US officials, as well as Qatari and Egyptian negotiators, and offers the possibility of a pause in fighting in Gaza for the first time since late November, as well as the release of all 136 hostages still in Gaza, not all of whom are alive.

The proposal was also discussed by the Israeli war cabinet earlier this week and was to be discussed again on Thursday evening.

In Cairo, the negotiating parties were to discuss the length of the potential truce, among other details, including the number of Palestinian security prisoners Israel will be required to release in return.

According to Kan news, the Qatari and Egyptian mediators are pushing for an extended pause in fighting that would last longer than two months, and which would not end before the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which is expected to run from around March 10 to April 9, 2024.

Key elements of the deal are said to have not been finalized, and an unidentified central sticking point is said to remain unresolved.

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)

While Hamas has said it will not sign onto any deal unless Israel commits to a withdrawal and permanent end to the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to pull troops out until “total victory” has been achieved — which he defines as largely eradicating Hamas.

A Palestinian official close to the talks said on Thursday that Hamas is unlikely to reject the Gaza ceasefire proposal it received from mediators this week, but will not sign it without assurances that Israel has committed to ending the war.

“I expect that Hamas will not reject the paper, but it might not give a decisive agreement either,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Instead, I expect them to send a positive response, and reaffirm their demands: for the agreement to be signed, it must ensure Israel will commit to ending the war in Gaza and pull out from the enclave completely.”

Jerusalem is highly unlikely to agree to this.

People who fled fighting in the Gaza Strip gather along an overcrowded street in Rafah in the south, on February 1, 2024. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

According to reports from both Israeli and Palestinian sources, the envisioned hostage deal is designed to occur in three stages.

Citing a draft of the proposed deal read by “officials involved in the talks,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the US is “pushing for a ceasefire deal that could stop the war in Gaza long enough to stall Israel’s military momentum and potentially set the stage for a more lasting truce.”

The three-part deal being considered by both parties would start with a six-week truce in which Israel would be required to end all military operations, including drone surveillance, according to the report. All civilian hostages would be freed by Hamas, and Gazan civilians would be able to move freely around the Strip. Humanitarian aid, which is currently all but unable to reach the northern part of the Strip, would be able to be distributed without limitations.

During the second stage of the deal, female IDF soldiers would be released in return for increased humanitarian aid, ensuring that hospitals, water services and bakeries could resume operations as normal.

Hamas has also demanded that Israel free 150 Palestinian security prisoners for each released female soldier hostage, the report stated, adding that that ratio is one of the issues under contention.

Crowds surround a Red Cross bus carrying Palestinians prisoners released from Israeli prison, in Ramallah on November 26, 2023. (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The third and final stage of the deal would see Hamas return all males it considers to be IDF soldiers — which includes all civilians whose age makes them eligible for reserve duty. Hamas would also return the bodies of dead hostages, of which there are at least 29, during this final stage.

Hamas will also require Israel to release an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners during this final stage, and will potentially require them to be high-risk Palestinians serving sentences for murderous attacks, including those captured inside Israel on October 7.

Along with Hamas’s demand that the truce lead to a permanent ceasefire, the issue of the Palestinian prisoners is expected to be one of the main areas of disagreement. Netanyahu stressed on Wednesday that Israel will not agree to a deal “at any cost,” and that it will not end the war, pull the IDF out of the Gaza Strip or “release thousands of terrorists.”

In addition, the Journal reported, Hamas could refuse to release a small group of hostages and instead hold onto them as a future bargaining chip or as human shields.

People cheer as a vehicle carrying hostages released by Hamas drives towards Hatzerim army base in Ofakim, southern Israel, on November 26, 2023, after they were released from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The reported plan for a six-week truce would be the longest pause in fighting since October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched a shock assault on southern Israel in the early morning hours of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.

In a single day, the terrorists attacked more than 20 communities, killed 1,200 people, including 360 at an outdoor music festival, and seized 253 hostages.

In response, Israel vowed to end Hamas’s rule over Gaza, which it has controlled since 2007. An aerial campaign and subsequent ground operation has laid waste to much of the Palestinian enclave, displacing around 85% of its 2.3 million residents, but has so far failed to reach the terror group’s top leadership, believed to be hiding in a vast underground tunnel network.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said on Thursday that more than 27,000 people had been killed since the start of the war, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 9,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

View of Destroyed buildings in the Gaza Strip, as it seen from the Israeli side of the border, on February 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The only pause in fighting that both sides have successfully agreed to since the start of the war was a weeklong truce in late November, during which 105 civilians were released from captivity in exchange for 240 Palestinian security prisoners, none of them serving time for murder or serious terrorism charges.

International aid agencies have since pleaded for an extended respite to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the enclave, where food is scarce and unaffordable and healthcare services are barely functioning.

If the representatives in Cairo choose to move forward with the deal in its current form, they will then turn to Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar for his approval, Channel 12 reported. The process could take until the end of the week.

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