US sees ‘real progress’ on framework for hostage release, says senior official

While there are still some ‘significant’ gaps to close, deal ‘pretty much there,’ official asserts, days after Israel rejected Hamas’s demands as ‘delusional’

A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing during Israeli strikes over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip at sunrise on February 11, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB/AFP)
A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing during Israeli strikes over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip at sunrise on February 11, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB/AFP)

Negotiators working on a framework for a deal to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza have made “real progress” over the last few weeks, a senior Biden administration official said Sunday night.

The hostage release deal was the main focus of a 45-minute telephone call between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier.

While there were still some “significant” gaps to close, the official said the deal was “pretty much there,” adding that Biden had stressed the need to capitalize on that progress to “secure the release of all hostages as soon as possible.”

Citing another unnamed official, Barak Ravid of Axios said Biden told Netanyahu that if a deal is possible, Washington would like to see it move forward.

Last week Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s “delusional” conditions for a new hostage deal. As part of its response to a framework negotiated in Paris for a hostage deal, Hamas demanded that Israel, among other things, release at least 1,500 Palestinian security prisoners, withdraw its troops fully from Gaza, eventually agree to a permanent ceasefire, and take steps to reduce its sovereignty on the Temple Mount

The official did not clarify what progress had been made since that apparent impasse in negotiations.

Biden, in the call, stressed that the United States did not support an Israeli military operation in Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza, without a plan to ensure the safety of civilians. Some 1.3 million people are sheltering in Gaza’s southernmost city.

With Netanyahu determined to complete the offensive, Hamas has threatened to “blow up” the hostage negotiations if troops enter the city, a senior Hamas leader was quoted as saying on Sunday by the terror group’s Aqsa TV channel.

US President Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Foreign governments have voiced deep concern about the effect of a push on Rafah on displaced civilians.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday that the military’s intelligence findings on Hamas bring a “realistic” hostage deal closer, as Israel sought to pressure Hamas to ease its demands for a truce.

“We penetrated into the heart of Hamas’s most sensitive places, and are using their intelligence against them,” he continued. “The more we deepen this operation, the closer we are to a realistic deal in order to return the hostages.”

Egyptian officials said they warned Hamas that it must reach a hostage-for-ceasefire deal with Israel within two weeks, or the IDF will move into Rafah, The Wall Street Journal reported.

This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meeting with soldiers in the IDF’s Alpine Unit at Mount Hermon, February 2, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

According to media reports, the Paris framework, which Israel has accepted as a basis for negotiations, envisioned a three-phase humanitarian pause, with 35 to 40 Israeli hostages — women, men older than 60, and those with serious medical conditions — released during the first six-week phase. Israeli soldiers and the bodies of killed hostages would be released in the second and third phases.

Details regarding the latter phases, as well as the number and identities of Palestinian security prisoners who would be released by Israel, were to be discussed in subsequent negotiations if the sides both agreed to the Paris proposal. Other reports presented different versions of the framework, which has not been officially published.

As the government continued to resist Hamas’s demands, hostages’ relatives and their supporters held nationwide protests Saturday night urging an immediate agreement, with some calling for elections amid mounting frustration with the government.

IDF troops operate inside the Gaza Strip in this undated handout photo release on February 11, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

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

Hamas is also holding 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, as well as the remains of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.

AFP contributed to this report.

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