Israel and Hamas continue indirect hostage talks in Qatar, amid reports of wide gaps

Hamas wants 30 security prisoners for every female soldier, Israel offering 5, says Al Jazeera; Sinwar’s deputy reportedly present; Barnea said set to fly home shortly

Demonstrators call for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Demonstrators call for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip and against the current Israeli government outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Large gaps remain in ongoing indirect talks, currently underway in Qatar, between Israel and Hamas for a hostage release deal and a temporary truce in Gaza as the war closes in on its sixth month, according to widespread reporting Saturday.

One major difference is centered around the number of Palestinian security prisoners Hamas has demanded be freed to secure the release of female IDF soldiers held hostage in Gaza since the October 7 attack.

Furthermore, Hamas has to date conditioned any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to a permanent ceasefire. Israel has repeatedly rejected this demand, vowing to resume its military campaign after any hostage-truce deal has been implemented and to complete its goal of destroying the terror group in the wake of the October 7 massacre, to ensure that it cannot retain power in Gaza and seek to carry out further such attacks.

The Israeli delegation, led by Mossad chief David Barnea, accompanied by Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and the IDF’s point person Nitzan Alon, is in Doha for talks mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt. The team has been meeting with CIA director William Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, and Egypt’s intelligence head Abbas Kamel.

According to a Channel 12 report Saturday, Israel has tentatively agreed to release a “more generous” number of Palestinian prisoners as part of a new compromise suggested by the US. But it is still refusing to countenance ending the war to secure an agreement with Hamas.

The original Paris framework from last month provided for a six-week truce and the release of about 400 security prisoners for about 40 hostages — women, children, the sick and elderly — in the first phase of a deal. A new US compromise is “more generous” for Hamas, but has been accepted by Israel, Channel 12 reported, without elaborating. The teams were now waiting for a response from Gaza, which could take days, the report said.

This combination of pictures created on February 13, 2024 shows (L to R) CIA Director William Burns, Mossad Director David Barnea, and Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. (AFP)

According to a report by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera on Saturday, Hamas has demanded that 30 Palestinian security prisoners sentenced by Israel to life imprisonment for terror offenses be released for every female IDF soldier currently being held by the terror group in Gaza. Nineteen women are still held hostage by the group, among them IDF soldiers, in addition to two young children, including the youngest hostage abducted on October 7.

They are among 130 hostages who remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that.

According to the Al Jazeera report, 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.

The Channel 12 report said the Hamas delegation includes the terror group’s Doha-based leaders Ismail Haniyeh, and Khaled Mashaal, as well as Khalil al-Haya, a deputy to Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar.

Several Hebrew media reports said Barnea, Bar and Alon would head home shortly, though some members of the Israeli team are likely to stay in Doha for several days, Channel 12 reported.

Israel’s negotiation team has rejected Hamas’s demands to end the war, withdraw its forces from Gaza, and unconditionally allow all internally displaced Gazans to return to the northern part of the territory, Palestinian sources told Al Jazeera Saturday.

Instead, Israel has offered the return of 2,000 Gazans a day to the north, beginning two weeks after the agreement goes into effect and a temporary ceasefire begins.

A Hamas official also told AFP Saturday that Israel “refuses to agree on a comprehensive ceasefire and refuses the complete withdrawal of its forces from Gaza.”

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

The Channel 12 report said that the war cabinet, when authorizing some limited leeway for the Israeli team before its departure on Friday, authorized the negotiators to discuss the process of civilian evacuees from northern Gaza to return.

Israel is also insisting on the right to exile, outside of the West Bank and Gaza,  security prisoners released under the deal who have committed severe crimes, according to Al Jazeera.

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.

Hamas is now considering Israel’s response to its proposal, but any answer from the terror organization’s delegation could take several days, Channel 12 reported.

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.

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

Echoing that assessment, Channel 12 on Friday quoted an Israeli source saying the families of hostages should not get the impression that a breakthrough was likely, but also said the talks were progressing.

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