Israeli delegation heads to Doha with clear ‘red lines’ for hostage release talks

Negotiating team led by Mossad’s David Barnea to resume indirect talks for temporary Gaza truce and release of abductees taken Oct. 7

File: Mossad Director David Barnea speaks during a Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in Tel Aviv, on September 10, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
File: Mossad Director David Barnea speaks during a Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in Tel Aviv, on September 10, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

An Israeli negotiating team headed by Mossad chief David Barnea traveled to Qatar Monday to continue indirect talks on a temporary truce in Gaza and a release of Israeli hostages held by terror groups.

The delegation was expected to get straight to work, with a source close to the talks saying on condition of anonymity that a meeting between Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Egyptian officials “is expected to take place today.”

US officials were also expected in Doha on Monday for the talks.

Israel officials, while expressing hope that the team was bringing with it the necessary tools to advance, also warned that the discussions were expected to be prolonged with no quick conclusion.

A source told Reuters that the Qatar discussions will cover the remaining gaps between Israel and Hamas, including the number of Palestinian security prisoners who could potentially be released in exchange for the remaining Israeli hostages, as well as humanitarian aid to Gaza.

An Israeli official confirmed to media that negotiators were expected to focus on securing a six-week truce with Hamas and the release of some 40 hostages.

This stage of the negotiations could take at least two weeks, the official estimated, citing difficulties that Hamas’s foreign delegates may have in communicating with terror leaders in Gaza after more than five months of war.

The security cabinet on Sunday held a meeting to finalize Israel’s negotiating stance before giving the delegation the go-ahead to head to Doha for the talks.

It approved “red lines,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, “in order to allow the delegation to hold the negotiations.”

The official would not expand on what those red lines were.

Demonstrators call for a deal to release Israeli hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 17, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

An Israeli official, making similar remarks to major outlets in an apparent coordinated leak, said “both sides will have to be flexible.”

“We are coming with a plan on what is possible and what is not, where Israel is willing to be flexible and where it isn’t.”

There are certain issues that the team has been empowered to make decisions on without cabinet approval, in order to speed up the process.

“The negotiating team didn’t get everything it asked from the cabinet concerning the breadth of mandate, but it received enough content and a framework in order to start up detailed and significant negotiations,” an official told Channel 13.

Yahya Sinwar (C), Hamas’s Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

An official told Ynet that negotiations would be “long and complicated,” explaining that it takes Hamas chiefs in Qatar around 24-36 hours to get a message through to the terror group’s leadership in Gaza, where leader Yahya Sinwar has the final word on negotiations.

Hamas’s political leadership lives in exile in Doha while Sinwar is in control in Gaza.

“This makes the process very difficult,” the Israeli official said. “We need to lower expectations of swiftly reaching a deal.”

Israeli and Hamas representatives will not face each other in Qatar. Israeli media has reported that one proposal discussed was for the two teams to sit in different locations with mediators running between the two, a format that was used during talks for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was freed in 2011 in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.

Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani speaks during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured) as part of Blinken’s weeklong trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Doha on January 7, 2024. (Karim Jaafar/AFP)

Regarding the Palestinian prisoners who may be released, Ynet reported that Israel will seek a veto on the list. However, in order to speed up the process, rather than sending documents back and forth between the Israeli government and Hamas’s Gaza leaders, as was the case in the Shalit deal, those present at the Doha talks will try to settle the matter directly. Israel is demanding that released prisoners with blood on their hands be exiled abroad while Hamas wants them to be permitted to return home, the report said.

Another no-go for Israel is a Hamas demand that Russia and Turkey be guarantors of the deal, Ynet said. Hamas is also still refusing to provide a list of living prisoners of the 130 abducted on October 7 it is believed to hold, demanding a weeklong lull in the war in exchange for the information.

Ynet reported that the negotiating team asked the security cabinet for “a significant amount of time to conduct the negotiations so that it would be possible to improve the deal, and to deliver an outline that we can stand behind.”

Talks have been on hold since last week, when Israel rejected a Hamas response to its latest offer for a six-week truce that would see 40 hostages released, with later stages possible to extend the break in fighting and allow more hostages to be freed. The terror group is reportedly seeking a deal for the release of hundreds of high-level Palestinian prisoners and an Israeli commitment to end fighting permanently and pull troops out of Gaza, with residents of north Gaza allowed to return home.

Hamas sees ‘real opportunity’

Hamas official Osama Hamdan told Iran-backed Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television channel in Lebanon that there was “a real opportunity to end the aggression and achieve a permanent ceasefire.”

He said Hamas, which previously demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal, would accept a partial Israeli retreat before the exchange of any prisoners.

“In the first stage, there will be a total halt to military operations, which means no overflights or troop movements” and a partial Israeli withdrawal, Hamdan said of the proposal.

Under this scenario, he told the channel, “after 14 days, there will be a withdrawal to the east… which means reopening the road for displaced people so that they can return.”

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan is interviewed on the Hezbollah-linked Mayadeen TV on March 6, 2024. (Screen capture/X)

“We accepted that there would be a partial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip before any exchange, and with the end of the first phase, a complete withdrawal would take place… with the complete end of military operations,” Hamdan said, adding that he hoped to conclude the negotiations “within days.”

The expected talks on Monday would mark the first time both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders joined the indirect negotiations since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last week. Mediators had hoped to secure a six-week truce before then, but Hamas refused any deal that wouldn’t lead to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, a demand Israel flatly rejects.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Mossad chief David Barnea at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Over the past week, both sides have made moves aimed at getting the talks back on track.

Hamas late last week gave mediators a new proposal for a three-stage plan that would end the fighting, according to two Egyptian officials, one who is involved in the talks and a second who was briefed on them.

The first stage would be a six-week temporary ceasefire that would include the release of 35 hostages — women, those who are ill, and older people — being held by terrorists in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel. Hamas would also release at least five female soldiers in exchange for 50 prisoners for each, including some serving long sentences on terror charges. Israeli forces would withdraw from two main roads in Gaza, let displaced Palestinians return to north Gaza, and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the Egyptian officials said.

In the second phase, the two sides would declare a permanent ceasefire and Hamas would free the remaining living hostages in exchange for more prisoners, the officials said. In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the bodies it’s holding in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza and allowing reconstruction to start, the officials said.

Israel has adamantly ruled out a permanent ceasefire and insists it will resume its declared goal of destroying Hamas once any hostage-truce deal is carried out.

Palestinian girls walk on a sand dune at a camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Israel has also signaled its intent to launch an offensive in the southernmost city of Rafah, Hamas’s last major stronghold in Gaza. The expected operation has strained ties with the US amid concerns over the safety of noncombatants who could be caught in the warzone. Israel has promised to act to evacuate Rafah of civilians before launching an operation in the city.

A temporary truce would bring a pause to the devastating war in Gaza, sparked by the terror group’s October 7 murderous rampage across southern Israel, when thousands of terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took 253 hostages.

A weeklong ceasefire brokered by Qatar and Egypt in late November secured the release of 105 hostages, mostly women and children. Barnea was also involved in the talks that led to that lull.

The government has faced increasing pressure at home from families of hostages and their supporters who have urged reaching a deal to release the hostages as soon as possible, fearing that dragging out their captivity, already in its sixth month, presents a mounting danger to their lives.

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