Qatar: Israeli ground offensive complicates hostage talks ‘considerably’

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

Qatar's foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari addresses the Doha forum on December 6, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Qatar's foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari addresses the Doha forum on December 6, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The spokesperson for Qatar’s foreign ministry says that the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza launched yesterday (Friday) has significantly complicated Doha’s efforts to secure the release of the hostages taken from Israel held in Gaza.

“This escalation makes it considerably more difficult,” Majed al-Ansari says while noting that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar have continued to express openness toward the issue, including since Israel launched an intensified phase of the war into northern Gaza on Friday night.

Sinwar said earlier that his terror group was ready to “immediately” swap with Israel in a deal “that includes “releasing all prisoners in the prisons of the Zionist occupation enemy in return for the release of all prisoners held by the resistance,” he said in a comment posted Saturday evening on Hamas media groups.

Netanyahu said the government was discussing the issue after being asked about the proposal while saying that discussing the details publicly would harm efforts to reach a deal.

The prime minister also insisted that “broadening the ground offensive does not clash in any way with our ability to bring back the hostages.”

Explaining why he felt the opposite, al-Ansari tells CNN that “moving people during a [ground] incursion and [under] increased bombardment” is more difficult. “But also from a political [perspective], mediation only works when you have periods of calm.”

However, he stresses that the talks are “ongoing” and that “nobody in the region can afford to give up on this and just leave it to the military people to decide what happens in the future.”

Qatar was credited for brokering the release of two pairs of female hostages on October 20 and October 22, but al-Ansari indicated that successive hostage releases might require Israel to release prisoners of its own.

“We are talking around the idea of more hostages coming out, we’re talking about the idea of a prisoner exchange,” al-Ansari says.

“We are optimistic that the dots are heading more toward all civilian hostages, but obviously it’s a fluid situation on the ground,” he adds.

The Qatari government spokesperson acknowledges that Doha does not have a definitive number of how many hostages currently being held in Gaza. “I’m not sure, to be honest, that anybody knows,” he says, adding that the lists provided by Israel and Hamas “are not necessarily always the same,” while appearing to confirm Palestinian Islamic Jihad claims that it too is holding a number of hostages.

Al-Ansari claims that both Israel and Hamas “acknowledge that the civilian hostages need to [be released] immediately,” though he does not say why Hamas continues to hold them in Gaza.

The military has notified the families of 230 hostages that their loved ones are currently being held in the Gaza Strip. The number is not final as the military investigates new information.

The Qatari foreign minister spokesperson says that Qatar prioritizes women and children followed by “foreign citizens” in the negotiations, not clarifying whether he’s referring to dual nationals or those without an Israeli passport. However, he insists that the latest discussions pertain to all civilians being held in Gaza, regardless of their age, gender, or nationality.

Al-Ansari does not mention the subgroup of soldiers who are also among those being held hostage. Hamas officials said toward the beginning of the war that it would only start negotiating their release after the fighting ended, but Sinwar said Saturday that the terror group would be prepared to release them all “immediately.”

Military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari has dismissed the offer as “psychological terror” andsaid Israel is working on multiple channels to free the hostages.

Netanyahu met earlier Saturday with representatives of the families whose loved ones are being held captive in Gaza, and pledged that Israel “will exhaust every possibility” to bring about their return.

The representatives urged Netanyahu to agree to an “everyone for everyone” prisoner exchange with Hamas.

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