Netanyahu tells families deal must be kept quiet to work

Potential deal would reportedly see 6-week pause, release of all civilian hostages

Washington Post says framework would require Israel to pull army out of Gaza cities and release security inmates in 3-1 ratio, also provides for release of soldiers, dead abductees

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

People attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
People attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

A barebones framework for a deal with Hamas would see all civilian hostages held by the Palestinian terror group in Gaza freed over a six-week pause in fighting, in exchange for three times as many Palestinian security prisoners released from Israeli jails, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli official told NBC News that there were “strong indications” a deal would move ahead, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told family members of hostages that the details of any deal must be kept discreet in order for it to work.

Citing unnamed officials familiar with the intense negotiations being mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt, the Washington Post said the initial proposal also envisions additional pauses during which hostage soldiers and bodies of dead hostages will be released.

The outline has been partly accepted in principle by Jerusalem and is being weighed by Hamas’s military leaders, the report said, adding that even if the terror group accepts it, many hurdles remain and numerous details will have to be hammered out over some time — and major disagreements sure to come up will have to be overcome — before a deal can be struck.

Described as a document currently spanning just 2-3 pages, the proposed deal would also reportedly have Israel temporarily reposition its forces outside highly populated areas of Gaza, and allow significantly more aid to enter the Strip. Negotiators were said to be hopeful that the deal could lead to a permanent halt of the war.

A women-led protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by terrorists in Gaza, in Rosh Pina, January 24, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

The report said the framework was “finalized” on Sunday during talks in Paris involving Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, CIA director William Burns, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, adding that the latter then flew to the US for talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

A senior Israeli official told NBC News on Wednesday that “there are strong indications” that a hostage deal will progress, while adding that Israel’s government has yet to officially agree to the terms hammered out in Paris.

The source said that the full Israeli cabinet has yet to see the terms of the full deal, although the narrow war cabinet had already debated it.

Also Wednesday, Netanyahu met with 26 representatives of 18 hostage families in Jerusalem, and told them that “our commitment is to bring everyone back.” He also told them that the details of all such efforts must be discreet in order to work, according to his office.

According to Channel 14, the families pressed Netanyahu to define the return of the hostages as the primary aim of the war, but he refused to do so.

Divergent details of a potential deal have been reported by various outlets in recent days, with analysts believing some are being released to “test the waters,” see what is palatable to the public, and possibly also as red herrings to make the eventual deal seem more acceptable.

Meanwhile, increasingly unyielding positions have recently been repeated by both Israeli and Hamas leaders, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing that the war will not end and the number of released security inmates won’t be in the thousands, while Hamas has said it won’t accept anything less than the end of the war and Israeli forces permanently leaving the entire Gaza Strip, and has even contended that it won’t negotiate under fire.

A delegation of Hamas officials was expected to meet Wednesday in Cairo with Kamel, the Egyptian intel chief, to discuss a potential deal, an Egyptian official told Qatar’s Al Araby news channel on Tuesday, after the Gazan terror group confirmed that it had received and was examining such a proposal.

Hadassah Lazar speaks during a special conference to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 30, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Previously reported details of a proposal under discussion said it would have three stages, during which all hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7 would be released in return for an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel.

The Reuters news agency, citing an unnamed Hamas official, reported that the Qatar-brokered proposal involved a phased truce, during which the terror group would first release the remaining civilians among the hostages abducted on October 7 (including children, women, the sick and elderly); then soldiers; and finally the bodies of hostages who were killed and abducted or killed in captivity.

Both sides would be required to commit to halting military operations throughout all three stages, but the official did not indicate how long the three stages would last or what would follow the final stage.

According to a separate report published by Arabic-language news outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Hamas will demand the release of 100-250 Palestinian prisoners for each IDF soldier it releases.

Quoting Egyptian security officials, the outlet reported that Israel and Hamas are expected to come to an agreement on the details of the deal by early next week — a scenario rendered unlikely by the rest of the reports on the matter.

In a mark of the seriousness of the negotiations, however, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Tuesday that he would be visiting Cairo to discuss the potential deal, in his first public trip to Egypt in over a month.

Freed Palestinian prisoners arrive in the West Bank city of Ramallah after being released under the terms of the Israel-Hamas hostage deal, on November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

In response to reports of Israel being prepared to make significant concessions and release a large number of Palestinian prisoners — and after far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir threatened to bring down the government if a “reckless” deal is reached — Netanyahu’s office insisted Tuesday that the reports were incorrect.

“The prime minister’s position is consistent — the war will only end when all its goals are achieved, the IDF will not withdraw from the Strip, and thousands of terrorists will not be released,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“The reports that a so-called agreement was reached on a solution for the release of security prisoners are not true,” it added. “The issue was not discussed at all.”

The statement from Netanyahu’s office came hours after he made similar comments while visiting the Bnei David pre-military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli.

Addressing the students, Netanyahu vowed that Israel “will not remove the IDF from the Gaza Strip and we will not release thousands of terrorists.” Instead, he said, the only thing that would happen would be “absolute victory” in the war against Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bnei David military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, January 30, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

At the same time as Hamas examines the proposed deal, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer was expected to meet US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing war in Gaza and efforts to secure the release of the hostages, a source familiar with the matter told the Times of Israel.

The strategic affairs minister — a close confidant of Netanyahu — last visited Washington a month ago.

His visit will be followed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s sixth trip to Israel since October 7, which will take place from February 3 to February 5.

The war cabinet meets at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel’s war cabinet met on Monday evening to discuss the hostage deal outline, Channel 12 reported, adding that the meeting was mostly positive.

Speaking to Channel 12, an unnamed cabinet member said that while “it will be a hard deal to swallow, we need to remember that for the sick, the elderly and the women, without a doubt it may be their final chance.”

The report added that Israel’s security establishment supports the outline of the deal, but believes that the war will resume after it ends and it will not lead to a permanent ceasefire.

The war cabinet is expected to meet again on Thursday to discuss any developments that occur.

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November that saw Israel release 240 security prisoners. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops.

The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Additionally, Hamas has also been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Lazar Berman, Times of Israel staff and Reuters contributed to this report.

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