Israeli official: 'Progress is slow and the gaps are large'

Hamas said to deride deal outline as ‘Zionist document’ as Qatar sees ‘race against time’

Qatari mediators said to relay broadly negative response by terror group to 6-week truce framework; TV report details US formula for 40-for-400 hostage-prisoner exchange

A woman and her children walk past a wall with photographs of hostages who were kidnapped during the October 7 Hamas-led cross-border terror onslaught in Israel, seen in Jerusalem, February 26, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)
A woman and her children walk past a wall with photographs of hostages who were kidnapped during the October 7 Hamas-led cross-border terror onslaught in Israel, seen in Jerusalem, February 26, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)

The emir of Qatar spoke of “a race against time” to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by terror groups in the Gaza Strip, as Israel’s Army Radio reported that Hamas representatives, in an unofficial response, had angrily rebuffed a proposed outline for a deal.

Several Hebrew media reports late Tuesday and Wednesday said Qatari mediators had conveyed a Hamas response to the outline, which had been drawn up by the US and agreed on by Israel, Egypt and Qatar last Friday in Paris, though no formal Hamas response had been presented. While a report by the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday evening quoted an Israeli official expressing “very cautious optimism” about the prospects for progress, an Army Radio report on Wednesday morning described a largely negative Hamas response.

The unsourced Army Radio report said Hamas representatives had termed the proposed outline “a Zionist document,” and objected to the fact that it did not relate to Hamas’s demand for an end to the war, did not include Israeli agreement to the full return to northern Gaza of internally displaced residents, and envisaged too few Palestinian security prisoners being freed in return for Israeli hostages.

The US-drafted proposal reportedly provides for a six-week pause in fighting during which some 40 hostages would be freed in exchange for some 400 Palestinian security prisoners.

The Kan report said that Qatari officials updated their Israeli counterparts Tuesday on Hamas’s response to some aspects of topics discussed at the talks Qatar has been holding with Hamas representatives. An unnamed Israeli official was quoted by the broadcaster saying that “there is very cautious optimism, but progress is slow and the gaps are large.”

The Kan report also said that Hamas has yet to provide a list of living hostages held in Gaza or a list of the Palestinian prisoners it wants released. Israeli sources have said that without those two pieces of information, negotiations cannot advance. There are 130 hostages abducted by terrorists from southern Israel on October 7 who remain in Gaza; Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.

Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country has been a key supporter of Hamas, denounced Israel during his speech in Paris on Tuesday, delivered at a dinner in his honor with his host, French President Emmanuel Macron.

“We are in a race against time to bring the hostages back to their families and at the same time we must work to put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he said. “The world sees a genocide of the Palestinian people,” he asserted. “Hunger, forced displacement, savage bombardments are used as weapons. And the international community still hasn’t managed to adopt a unified position to end the war in Gaza and provide the strict minimum of protection for children, women, and civilians.”

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani delivers a speech during a state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 27, 2024. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)

The war erupted after Hamas led a devastating attack against Israel on October 7 that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, amid horrific atrocities including widespread gang rape, torture and mutilation of victims. Some 3,000 attackers burst through the border with Gaza to rampage murderously through southern Israeli regions. Terrorists also kidnapped 253 people of all ages who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded with an air, sea, and ground offensive to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group, and free the hostages.

The exchange ratio

Meanwhile, Israel’s Channel 12 on Tuesday reported what it said was the American proposal for a key part of the potential hostage release deal: the number and nature of the Palestinian security prisoners who would be released in exchange for hostages held in Gaza since October 7.

In all, the report said, the US proposed at talks in Paris last week that some 400 Palestinian terror inmates would be released in exchange for 40 Israeli hostages during the planned six-week truce.

IDF troops seen operating in Gaza in this handout photo cleared for publication on February 27, 2024 (IDF)

Twenty-one Palestinian security prisoners would be freed by Israel in exchange for the seven Israeli women who were to have been released on the final day of a previous truce, at the end of November, when Hamas reneged on the terms and the truce collapsed. That comes out to a three-to-one ratio.

Ninety Palestinian security prisoners would be released in exchange for five Israeli women soldiers held hostage, an 18-to-one ratio. Fifteen of those prisoners would reportedly be major terrorists with blood on their hands, including several mass murderers.

Another 90 prisoners would be released in exchange for 15 men among the hostages who are older than 50, a six-to-one ratio.

One hundred and fifty-six prisoners would be released in exchange for 13 Israeli male hostages who are ill or injured, a 12-to-one ratio.

Finally, according to the Channel 12 report, another 40 Palestinian security prisoners who were freed in the 2011 deal for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, but who have since been rearrested for further terrorist activities, would also be released.

The TV report, which was unsourced, said the US proposal was put on the table in Paris.

It also noted that despite US President Joe Biden’s optimistic talk Monday of a truce agreement by March 4, Israel remains pessimistic about an imminent deal coming to fruition.

A tent camp housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive is seen in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 27, 2024. (Hatem Ali/AP)

The Associated Press, adding further details to the behind-the-scenes contacts on a potential deal, cited a senior official from Egypt as saying Israel would allow displaced Palestinians to return to certain areas in northern Gaza. The Egyptian official said aid deliveries would be ramped up during the temporary ceasefire, with 300 to 500 trucks entering the beleaguered territory per day, far more than the daily average number of trucks entering since the start of the war.

The deliveries to areas across Gaza would be facilitated by Israel, whose forces would refrain from attacks on them and on police escorting the aid convoys, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the talks with journalists.

Sticking points

Despite Biden’s optimism, Israel and Hamas have for weeks been far apart on their terms for a deal, dragging out negotiations amid intermittent signs of momentum.

Protesters demonstrate for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

AP noted that Israel wants all female soldiers included in the first phase of hostage releases, according to an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing talks. Hamas views all soldiers as more significant bargaining chips and is likely to push back on this demand. The Egyptian official said the female soldiers were at this point being held off until after the first release.

The Egyptian official said the sides were also discussing how many Palestinians would be allowed to return to northern Gaza and whether to limit their return to women and men over 50.

Talks are also pinning down specifics of areas of Gaza from which Israel would withdraw troops during the truce, the Egyptian official said, adding that Israel wants Hamas to refrain from using areas it leaves as staging grounds for attacks. It also wants Hamas to stop firing rockets at southern Israel. Hamas has so far rejected both demands, the official said.

On Tuesday, incoming rocket sirens sounded in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon for the first time in 10 days. Alarms were also activated in several nearby communities. A large fragment of an intercepted rocket landed on a parked car in Ashkelon. There were no injuries.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, based in Gaza and allied with Hamas, claimed responsibility, saying it fired several rockets at the city.

Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip has greatly subsided in recent months, amid the IDF’s ongoing ground offensive against Hamas. The initial October 7 terror attack came under cover of a barrage of thousands of rockets fired at many areas in Israel.

The potential deal leaves a door open for Israel to operate in the southern border town of Rafah once it expires. More than half of Gaza’s population has fled to the southern city on the Egyptian border. Israel wants to destroy what it says are the few Hamas battalions left standing there. However, the international community, including the US, has raised fears over the possible high civilian casualties from such an operation and Washington has demanded a plan that enables noncombatants to evacuate to safe zones. The IDF presented its plan for Rafah to the war cabinet on Monday evening.

What remains to be negotiated?

During the temporary ceasefire, unconfirmed reports have said, there would be provision for negotiations on further phases of a deal, to include the release of all other hostages, alive and dead, in exchange for more Palestinian security prisoners and a longer pause in the fighting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to agree to a deal that came with too high a price. But the families of the hostages, whose plight has deeply shaken Israelis, are likely to ramp up pressure if others are freed. Netanyahu has also insisted that the war will resume after any truce, and will not end until “total victory” over Hamas.

The US hopes a new deal would be a launching pad for implementing its vision for a postwar Gaza that would eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. It wants Gaza to be governed by a revamped Palestinian Authority, which administers part of the West Bank. On Monday, the PA took a first step that could usher in US-backed reforms by disbanding its government.

Israel wants to retain overall security control in the Gaza Strip and has rejected having world powers impose a state on it.

Palestinians wait for humanitarian aid on a beachfront in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, February 25, 2024. (Mahmoud Essa/AP)

Biden said on Monday that Israel would be willing to pause its war on Hamas in Gaza during the upcoming Islamic holy month of Ramadan if a deal is reached to release some of the hostages held by the terrorists.

Israeli officials said Biden’s comments, including his prediction of a possible deal by March 4, came as a surprise and were not made in coordination with the country’s leadership.

The start of Ramadan, which is expected to be around March 10, is seen as an unofficial deadline for a ceasefire. The month is a time of heightened religious observance and dawn-to-dusk fasting for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.

IDF troops seen operating in Gaza in this handout photo cleared for publication on February 27, 2024 (IDF)

Fears of famine

Meanwhile, a senior UN aid official told the Security Council at least 576,000 people in the Gaza Strip – a quarter of the population – are one step away from famine, warning that widespread famine could be “almost inevitable” without action.

One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza is suffering from acute malnutrition and practically all the 2.3 million people in the Palestinian enclave rely on “woefully inadequate” food aid to survive, Ramesh Rajasingham, director of coordination for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the council.

The World Food Program “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau told the 15-member council.

“But in the meantime, the risk of famine is being fueled by the inability to bring critical food supplies into Gaza in sufficient quantities, and the almost impossible operating conditions faced by our staff on the ground,” he said.

Emmanuel Macron said on X, formerly Twitter, that France and Qatar in a joint operation chartered humanitarian and medical aid on Tuesday for “the people of Gaza.”

Macron said “75 tons of freight, 10 ambulances, food rations, 300 family tents” arrived in el-Arish airport in Egypt, near the Rafah crossing to Gaza.

France and Qatar also mediated a deal in January for the shipment of medicine for the dozens of hostages held by Hamas. Qatar authorities said last week that Hamas has started delivering the medication.

On Wednesday, the prime ministers of Qatar and France will chair an economic forum to boost investments in sectors such as artificial intelligence, health, green technologies, transport, and tourism.

Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to Hamas-run health authorities, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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