US says 'very serious' talks in Qatar on deal to free hostages

Qatar announces deal to send medications to hostages held by Hamas

Doha says it worked with France to mediate agreement, set to get under way Wednesday, that will see meds provided to captives, with Israel okaying increased entry of medical aid

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

A protester against the Red Cross  at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A protester against the Red Cross at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Qatar announced Tuesday that it successfully mediated an agreement between Israel and Hamas to deliver medication to the hostages in Gaza.

The medications will leave Doha Wednesday aboard two Qatari military aircraft en route to the coastal city of el-Arish in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The consignment will then be transferred into the Gaza Strip, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, noting that France played a role in the mediation of the deal.

The Qatari statement said Doha’s mediation between Israel and Hamas will continue “within the framework of Qatari efforts to bring about an end to the war in Gaza.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office later confirmed the deal and said the premier “conveys his appreciation to all those who helped during the process.” The statement from the Prime Minister’s Office added that Israel will see to it that the medications reach their destination.

The Biden administration welcomed the announcement of the agreement, said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson on Tuesday.

There was no immediate reaction from Hamas. Over the weekend, a senior figure in the Gaza-ruling terror group acknowledged medications from Qatar would reach the Strip and “some medicine will be used to treat Israeli prisoners.”

Earlier Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office revealed Paris’s role in the deal, saying that he had ordered his country’s foreign ministry to draw up a list of medicine for 45 hostages, make the purchase and send it to Qatar.

The medicine arrived in Doha on Saturday, according to France, which said it has been working together with Qatar since late October after being approached by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

Israel is overseeing the security aspects of the operation, a French official told The Times of Israel, adding that the International Committee of the Red Cross is involved as well.

If the project succeeds, a joint French-Qatari statement is expected.

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza who returned from talks in Qatar hold a press conference at Hostages Square, outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, January 7, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In exchange for the medicine for the hostages, Israel agreed to expand the amount of medical aid included in the humanitarian assistance entering Gaza each day, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. The Qatari statement indicated that some of that aid will be included in the shipment being ferried to Egypt on Wednesday.

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.

They have had no visits from the Red Cross since they were abducted during Hamas’s murderous onslaught in southern Israel, when terrorists killed 1,200 and took 240 others captive — mostly civilians. Critics have blasted the Red Cross for failing to visit them in captivity or even ensure that much-needed medicines reach them.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the list of medications for the hostages will include ones deemed as “life-saving” by their doctors and are believed to include medicine for those with chronic illnesses, heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma.

According to the official, the negotiations were complex as Hamas is wary that the transfer of medications to the hostages will lead to Israel discovering where exactly they are being held.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands during a press conference following a meeting in Doha on January 7, 2024. (Karim Jaafar/AFP)

‘Intensive’ talks on a hostage deal

Also Tuesday, the White House said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed efforts to negotiate the release of the remaining hostages during separate meetings with Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk was also in Doha earlier this week for meetings with Qatari leaders on the same issue, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Six US citizens are counted among the remaining living hostages.

“We are having very serious and intensive discussions in Qatar about the possibility for another deal… [and] we’re hopeful that it can bear fruit soon,” Kirby said, echoing statements he has made over the past month and a half that have not seen any substantive progress.

Hamas says it will not release the hostages for anything less than a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which Israel has rejected off the bat.

Kirby highlighted the propaganda videos of the hostages published by Hamas this week, which he said “are a reminder of [the terror group’s] cruelty and barbarism.”

From left: Noa Argamani, Yossi Sharabi and Itay Svirsky, seen in an undated Hamas propaganda film released on January 14, 2024. (Screenshot combo)

He noted that they featured Noa Argamani, who was supposed to have been released along with the other female hostages during the seven-day truce in late November but that Hamas backed out of the deal.

The other Israelis who appeared in the videos were Yossi Sharabi and Itay Svirsky, residents of Kibbutz Be’eri, which announced Tuesday that they were killed in Gaza and that their bodies are being held by the Hamas terror group.

The kibbutz called for their bodies to be returned for burial and for the release of all hostages.

The announcement of their deaths came after the latest propaganda video, published Monday evening, raised concerns regarding Svirsky and Sharabi. Argamani is believed by the IDF to be alive.

Kirby also addressed the continued battles in Gaza during the press briefing Tuesday, saying the IDF shift to low-intensity fighting in northern Gaza and the imminent shift to low-intensity fighting in southern Gaza as announced Monday by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will allow for an increase of humanitarian aid as well as the return of civilians to their homes.

With the scale-back in fighting, “We are preparing to increase the humanitarian assistance… as well as to help set the conditions for the population to return to north Gaza where the UN hopes to conduct assessment missions over the coming week,” Kirby said.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on January 11, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Israel has approved the UN assessment but has rejected efforts to allow evacuated Gazans to return to their homes in the northern Strip, saying that the fighting is still ongoing there and that it will not allow the step unless there is an advancement in efforts to release the hostages.

“We’re making these preparations because we believe that these lower intensity operations inside Gaza should be able to not only allow for a reduction in civilian casualties, but a more reliable distribution of aid over the coming period,” Kirby said, adding that Biden’s Gaza humanitarian envoy David Satterfield and US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew were meeting Tuesday with senior Israeli political and military leaders to discuss the issue further.

Kirby said “the images coming out of Gaza continue to be heartbreaking and painful” and that the US was continuing its efforts to limit civilian casualties while stressing that Hamas hinders these efforts by operating among civilians.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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