Talks on Gaza hostages, truce deal said to resume in Qatar amid cautious optimism

War cabinet reportedly gives delegation ‘limited mandate’ to discuss technical aspects of deal, as negotiators await Hamas response to framework reached in Paris

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)
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)

Negotiations for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza have resumed in Doha between “experts from Egypt, Qatar, the United States and Israel” as well as Hamas representatives, state-linked Egyptian media reported Sunday.

The news came a day after multiple media reports indicated that a framework for a pause in the fighting and a hostage release had been formulated by Israeli, American, Egyptian and Qatari representatives over the weekend in Paris.

The talks are a “continuation of what was discussed in Paris” and “will be followed by meetings in Cairo,” reported Al-Qahera News, which is linked to Egyptian state intelligence services.

Israel’s war cabinet had agreed on Saturday to send a delegation to Qatar to continue the talks, according to Israeli media reports.

Citing unnamed Israeli sources, Axios reported that the Israeli delegation to Doha would have “a limited mandate” and the talks will focus on the technical aspects of a potential deal.

Egyptian security sources said Sunday that representatives from both Israel and Hamas would later travel to Cairo for further talks aimed at reaching an agreement on the timing and mechanism for executing any deal, including hostage releases, the sources said.

File: The war cabinet meets at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters on January 25, 2024. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

According to media reports, the framework reached in Paris provides for the release of some 40 hostages held in Gaza, including women, children, female soldiers and elderly and ill abductees, amid a pause in fighting of some six weeks, in a tentative first stage.

It also includes the release by Israel of hundreds of Palestinian terror convicts, and a “redeployment” of Israeli troops within Gaza — but not a complete withdrawal as Hamas had previously demanded. The outline would also reportedly see Israel enable the return of Palestinian women and children to northern Gaza, from where hundreds of thousands evacuated during the fighting, and which Israel has kept cut off from the rest of the enclave.

Israel’s Channel 12 news reported that there are still some points of contention, including Israel’s opposition to significant rehabilitation and reconstruction of Gaza before it is demilitarized, as well as ongoing differences on the number of Palestinian prisoners who would be released in exchange for the hostages.

But, the network noted that there appears to have been “some kind of shift” by Hamas on its demand for an end to war — which the terror group has hitherto insisted must be a condition for further hostage releases. Israel has outright refused the demand, vowing to destroy the terror group following the October 7 massacre.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo cleared for publication on February 25, 2024. (IDF)

Hamas has yet to respond to the outline reportedly formulated in Paris, but the draft largely matches its earlier demands for the first phase of a truce. Hamas’s top political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, was in Cairo last week.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Saturday, an Israeli official attempted to temper optimism for a deal in Hebrew-language media, noting the delegation itself was more cautious.

Negotiators face an unofficial deadline of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan around March 10, a period that often sees heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions. War cabinet minister Benny Gantz has said Israel will expand its offensive into Rafah if there is no hostage release deal by then.

Hamas has said it will not release all of the remaining hostages until Israel ends its offensive and withdraws its forces from the territory and is also demanding the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including senior terror group members — conditions Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently rejected.

However, an earlier proposal from Hamas outlined an initial phase that resembles the reported draft agreement, indicating the two sides might be able to converge on a temporary ceasefire.

File: A Red Cross convoy carrying Israeli hostages heads to Egypt from the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Nov. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Families of the hostages have followed the fits and starts of the negotiations with hope and anguish.

“It feels like Schindler’s list. Will he be on the list or not?” Shelly Shem-Tov, the mother of Omer, 21, who is held captive, told Army Radio of her son’s chances of being freed in an emerging deal.

It is believed that 130 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, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

Pressure has been mounted on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate a deal and secure the release of the remaining hostages.

A group representing their families held a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday to demand swifter action. The families, together with activists and protesters, have been gathering weekly across Israeli cities to demand an agreement that would free their loved ones.

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