Israel said willing to free some 800 inmates for 40 hostages, as talks given 50/50 odds

Report says up to 100 murder convicts could be released for female soldiers, but officials cautious on optimism; Hamas answer may take days with Sinwar hard to reach underground

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip rally in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip rally in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli officials gave even odds to chances of reaching a deal to release hostages held in Gaza Sunday, as reports indicated that Jerusalem had softened its position and could be willing to release hundreds more Palestinian prisoners than initially agreed to in an initial phase of an accord.

Top Israeli and American officials involved in the talks returned home over the weekend after flying to Doha to participate in the negotiations, though sources in Jerusalem were careful to curb any possible optimism over the likelihood of a breakthrough, even as the sides appeared to move closer together after months of painstaking discussions.

“Right now, we’re feeling 50/50 about the chances for a deal,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

During the talks, Israel had accepted a recent US compromise proposal, a second Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday, which has since been sent to Hamas. The official did not say what the proposal entailed, but reports suggested Israel was willing to nearly double the number of security inmates it had already to release in exchange for 40 hostages — women, children, the sick and elderly — in the first phase of a 6-week truce deal.

According to a report carried by Channel 12 news, Israel is now willing to release as many as 800 prisoners, including 100 inmates convicted of murder. Other Hebrew media reports suggested Israel was prepared to release 700 security prisoners in return for the 40.

A framework deal Israel agreed to in Paris last month included the willingness to release 400 security inmates in the first phase of the deal.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the main sticking point in talks has been the number of high-value prisoners Israel will release in exchange for female soldiers.

According to a report in Al Jazeera Saturday, Hamas has demanded that 30 Palestinian security prisoners sentenced by Israel to life imprisonment for terror offenses be released for each female IDF soldier currently being held by the terror group in Gaza. The report said Israel, in its response, offered five such prisoners per female soldier, and has also insisted that in the first phase of any deal, 40 abductees must be released from across all categories of hostages, including elderly and younger men.

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Hamas hold placards and wave Israeli flags during a demonstration in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Qatar-based broadcaster reported that Israel was also insisting on the right to exile high-value security prisoners released under the deal to locations outside the West Bank and Gaza, a condition that Hamas has rejected in the past.

According to Channel 12, Israel showed increased flexibility as well by being willing to discuss allowing Palestinian civilians to return to northern Gaza, a first.

Quoting an unnamed senior source close to the talks, the channel reported that Israel has offered the return of 2,000 Gazans a day to the north, beginning two weeks after an agreement goes into effect and a temporary ceasefire begins.

The source said there would be unspecified conditions for a return to the north of the Strip, which Israel demanded civilians evacuate from in the beginning of the war as fighting focused on Hamas’s seat of power in Gaza City and its environs. Men would likely not be permitted to return, according to the report.

The report added that Israel continued to reject Hamas demands for a full military withdrawal and a permanent ceasefire. Hamas to date has conditioned any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to end the war. Israel has dismissed this demand as delusional, and insisted that its military campaign to destroy Hamas’s military and governance capabilities will resume once any hostage-truce deal is implemented.

Israel “refuses to agree on a comprehensive ceasefire and refuses the complete withdrawal of its forces from Gaza,” a Hamas official told AFP over the weekend.

The official added that Israel had indicated it wanted to keep matters of relief, shelter and aid under its control, and was demanding that “the United Nations not return to work, especially in the northern Gaza Strip.”

Palestinians rush to collect the humanitarian aid airdropped into Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, March 17, 2024. (AP/Mohammed Hajjar)

An answer from Hamas is expected to take several days due to issues communicating with Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, who is believed to be in hiding beneath southern Gaza. Israeli officials have said Hamas’s political leadership in Qatar is unable to accept or reject a deal without Sinwar’s okay, slowing the talks.

Mossad chief David Barnea, Israel’s top official involved in the talks, flew back from Qatar late Saturday night, along with Shin Bet security agency director Ronen Bar and Israel Defense Forces point man Nitzan Alon, though a lower-level team hashing out technical details remained in the Gulf state.

CIA director Bill Burns departed Doha as well, a source briefed on the talks told AFP.

File: CIA Director William Burns speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 8, 2023. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP Photo)

The CIA and Mossad chiefs “departed Doha to brief their respective teams back home on the latest round” of talks, the source said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, adding negotiations had “focused on details and a ratio for the exchange of hostages and prisoners.”

Barnea and his team had met in Doha with Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, and Egypt’s intelligence head Abbas Kamel.

The US, Egypt and Qatar are mediating the indirect talks, which are aimed at stopping the fighting and releasing the 134 hostages kidnapped from Israel remaining captive. A worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, with the UN warning that the northern part of the Strip is on the verge of unprecedented famine, has added urgency to the negotiations, as have Israeli plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1 million displaced Gazans are sheltering.

The IDF launched its offensive in Gaza in response to Hamas’s brutal onslaught of southern Israel on October 7, in which thousands of terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 253 hostage.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo cleared for publication on March 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel, which has vowed to destroy Hamas in self-defense, has rejected anything other than a temporary truce, though on Sunday Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel’s goal was “victory over Hamas” which may have signaled a tempering of expectations in Jerusalem, with the US increasingly threatening to pull support for Israel’s offensive should it expand into Rafah, Hamas’s final stronghold.

The source close to the talks quoted by Channel 12 said the government’s protracted indecision over whether to start a major ground operation in the final Hamas stronghold had hurt negotiation efforts.

Officials have indicated that a truce deal could see a second and third phase, during which the rest of the hostages and remains held by Hamas could be released, though the terror group has rejected releasing all captives without a permanent end to the fighting in place.

Protesters call for the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group, Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Most female captives were released as part of a truce deal in November, but 19 women are still held hostage in Gaza, among them IDF soldiers, in addition to two young children, including an infant abducted on October 7.

The negotiating team is also demanding the return of the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, and whose remains are held by the terror group, in return for releasing Palestinian prisoners who were released in the 2011 Gilat Shalit deal but subsequently recaptured by Israel.

As Barnea and the other officials left for Qatar on Friday, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that “there has been no real progress” in negotiations with Hamas, despite comments from US officials that talks had advanced.

“The Americans are dressing it up as progress,” said the source. “The pressure to move forward is coming from them.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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