Jammed hostage talks advancing as Hamas softens under Qatari pressure — diplomat

Arab official says terror group has accepted modified version of framework deal already agreed to by Israel, but sides still need to sign off

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

An activist  in Tel Aviv calls for the government to agree to a deal releasing hostages held in Gaza, on March 12, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
An activist in Tel Aviv calls for the government to agree to a deal releasing hostages held in Gaza, on March 12, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Qatari and Egyptian mediators believe significant progress has been made this week toward securing a truce between Israel and Hamas, after talks appeared dead in the water, a senior Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Progress was made after Doha placed significant pressure on Hamas, warning the terror group that its leaders residing in Qatar would be kicked out of the country if they didn’t adapt their approach in the negotiations.

The apparent breakthrough would reinvigorate fading hopes that the sides could reach a deal, after an informal deadline earlier this week passed with Israel and Hamas at loggerheads over fundamental issues and both accusing each other of being uninterested in an agreement to pause fighting and release the hostages kidnapped from Israel on October 7.

A senior Hamas official told Al Arabiya on Tuesday that the group had accepted a modified version of a US proposal based on a framework already accepted by Israel during a meeting in Paris last month. Hamas later issued a statement denying the report.

The three-phase deal truce under discussion would see roughly 40 female, elderly, and wounded hostages released during an initial six-week phase in exchange for Palestinian detainees held by Israel, the Arab diplomat said. Soldiers and all other male hostages would be released during a second phase, and a third phase would see the bodies of hostages released.

During the latter phases, the sides would hold talks on a more permanent ceasefire, the diplomat added.

In the first phase, mediators were seeking to coax Hamas into agreeing to a 10:1 ratio of security prisoners released by Israel for every hostage, according to the diplomat. The terror group had pushed for an even more lopsided split, but appeared to have come down from those earlier demands.

Activists protest calling for the government to find a solution to have the hostages released, outside IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 10, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Talks over a deal have generally included a pause in fighting for several weeks to allow the hostages to leave Gaza and facilitate the entry of more humanitarian aid into the enclave.

Israel agreed last month to a similar framework, reached in talks in Paris, that would have halted fighting for six weeks and seen hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released. However, it has balked at Hamas demands that it agree to halt fighting permanently, saying it remains committed to the goal of wiping out the terror group following the October 7 assault on southern Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Hamas’s demand for an end to the war as “delusional.”

Both Hamas and Netanyahu’s cabinet will still have to sign off on modified proposal. The Arab diplomat said it’s unclear whether that will happen.

The Wall Street Journal first reported Saturday that Qatar was increasing pressure on Hamas leaders hosted by the Gulf state to accept a deal, threatening to kick them out of Doha if they did not soften demands.

At the time, Hamas official Husam Badran denied the report and blamed Netanyahu for the impasse, claiming he “refuses to deal with anything on the table.”

“Netanyahu is the most dangerous [person] for the stability of this region. He is the fire starter.”

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Khaled Mashal in Doha, October 17, 2016 (Qatar government handout)

In a rare statement, Israel’s Mossad spy agency said Saturday night that Hamas was stiffening its demands, making a deal unreachable. Nonetheless, talks have continued this week under Egyptian, Qatari and US mediation.

The war between Israel and Hamas broke out on October 7 after the terrorist group launched an unprecedented attack on the south of Israel, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

It is believed that around 100 hostages are in Gaza, along with the bodies of 32 people, many of whom were killed on October 7, according to the Israeli military.

The sides last paused fighting during a weeklong truce in late November, leading to the release of 105 civilians, almost all of them women and children, in late November. Three hostages have been rescued by troops amid intense fighting in Gaza over the last five months.

Members of the Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad release Israeli hostages to the Red Cross, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

The November deal saw hostages released in groups of 10-15 for every day that the truce continued in exchange for Israel releasing 240 female and minor Palestinian security prisoners.

Hopes for a deal before the start of Ramadan, which began earlier this week, were dashed on Thursday when Hamas walked away from negotiations in Cairo while insisting that Israel agree to a permanent ceasefire and a complete withdrawal from Gaza.

Reports have also indicated that Hamas is seeking the release of some of the most notorious terror leaders held in Israeli prisons, including those found responsible for dozens of deadly bombing attacks.

Israel set the return of the hostages as one of the main objectives of the war, though Netanyahu and his government have insisted that military pressure is the best way to achieve that, amid domestic and international pressure to get them released via negotiations.

Mediators had hoped to have a deal in place before Israel expands its offensive into Rafah, where some 1 million displaced Gazans have sought shelter, amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

Aid packages for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are airdropped into northern Gaza on March 11, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 31,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified. The figure is believed to include a combination of terrorists and civilians, including those who were killed by Hamas’s own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed some 13,000 Hamas terrorists in battle as well as some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

The army also says 249 soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the ground invasion began at the end of October.

Aside from those kidnapped on October 7, Hamas is also holding the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after wandering into the Strip in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

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