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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel and Hamas nearly struck a deal to free up to 50 hostages

203 empty chairs and place settings, one for each hostage believed to be held in Gaza, are arranged ahead of Shabbat as part of a demonstration advocating for the safe return of the hostages, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 20, 2023.

By Maria Abi-Habib and Matthew Rosenberg

Days before Israel launched its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, it was closing in on a deal for Hamas to release up to 50 hostages in exchange for pausing the bombardment unleashed in response to the militants’ Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, according to Arab and Western officials with knowledge of the talks.

But once Israel’s ground assault on Gaza got underway Oct. 27, the negotiations came to an abrupt halt, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. The talks resumed days later and are still underway.

Israel had delayed its ground attack to give some time for the hostage negotiations to be completed, according to two of the officials. But as the talks stalled, it decided to go forward, reckoning that Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules Gaza, would bow to military pressure.

“There will be no pause without the return of hostages and missing persons,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a written statement to The New York Times this week. “The only way of saving the hostages is if Israel continues its ground operation.”

On Oct. 7, Palestinian attackers penetrated towns and military bases in southern Israel and killed roughly 1,400 people. They also took about 240 captives back to Gaza, including civilians and Israeli soldiers.

Hamas leaders have since claimed that their group does not have control over all of those captives because other Gaza factions, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, also entered Israel that day and took some hostages of their own.

So far, the negotiations have only focused on releasing civilian hostages, according to these officials. The Israeli soldiers held in Gaza may eventually be part of a separate track of negotiations, possibly to be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian women and minors who are held without charge in Israeli prisons.

The deal was being worked out in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, which has hosted the Hamas political leadership in exile for years. The United States and Israel have long used Qatar as an intermediary to get messages to Hamas and to coordinate aid efforts in Gaza.

The Qatari capital, Doha, is now the focal point of both the hostage negotiations and separate talks on getting aid into Gaza. Over the past week, Hamas has added a new condition for releasing civilian hostages — the delivery of fuel to collapsing hospitals across the Gaza Strip.

Israel has prevented fuel deliveries into Gaza, claiming that Hamas uses it for its rocket attacks and that it has stockpiled fuel meant for civilians. But aid organizations have said that fuel is one of the biggest needs in Gaza, to keep everything from hospitals to bakeries running.

But from the outset, the hostage talks were stymied by logistical problems and a lack of trust on both sides.

The Qatar-based Hamas leadership had problems staying in close contact with Hamas’ military leaders in Gaza, the officials said. And the Israelis doubted whether the political leadership even had the authority to deliver on any deal, according to one European official.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Doha-based political leader of Hamas, and Yehia Sinwar, the Hamas chief in Gaza, were able to communicate, and the release of four hostages earlier in October showed that they could work together to clinch a deal, according to two of the officials with knowledge of the negotiations.

The issue, they said, was that communications were spotty — the Hamas leaders struggled to make quick, consistent contact between Qatar and Gaza — and worsened when Israel cut telecommunication networks as it launched its ground offensive.

And yet by Oct. 27, the day the Israeli ground invasion began, the two sides appeared ready to make the trade. The only hitch, apparently, was the timing.

Hamas said it needed five days to gather the hostages. Israel insisted the group do it in several hours and demanded, at the last minute, a detailed list of all those who would be released. Two of the officials with knowledge of the talks said these were among the main reasons the deal collapsed: The requests were difficult to meet amid the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

After a brief pause in the talks following the ground invasion, negotiations resumed. But the issues that plagued the talks from the outset, especially the logistical hurdles, have only intensified.

Hamas’ apparent lack of control over all the captives, coupled with the ground invasion, have made it more difficult for the group to round up those slated for release and to deliver them safely to Israel, according to three of the officials with knowledge of the matter.

The European official said questions arose about whether the Hamas leadership in Gaza was willing to give up so many hostages at once without seeing any Palestinians released from Israeli prisons. In the weeks following the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas officials had made clear that freeing some of the roughly 6,700 Palestinian prisoners was one of the main motives behind their attack.

Israel dispatched David Barnea, the chief of its Mossad intelligence agency, to Qatar to negotiate the hostage deal with Hamas indirectly through Qatari mediators in the days before the ground invasion. The trip, and the negotiations, were first reported by Axios, which said the trip came after the Israeli invasion commenced.

Yet according to two officials, Barnea visited Qatar before the ground invasion. He was set to return for a second push to wrap up the deal, but the trip was canceled right after Israeli troops went into Gaza, they said. Some days later, he did go back to show the Israelis were serious about the negotiations.

In the early phases of the negotiations, Hamas put forward another demand — to allow aid into the Gaza Strip and to release the women and minors held without charge, in what Israel calls administrative detention; many children are detained for relatively minor offenses, such as throwing rocks at Israeli forces.

However, Israel rejected those demands and Hamas agreed to scale back to a request for a pause in airstrikes.

Hamas is now trying to add to its demands some relief for Gaza hospitals, which are on the verge of total collapse. Nearly half are not functioning because of damage from the fighting — including Israeli strikes — or because they have run out of fuel. Those that are working say they do not have enough electricity to function fully, with some doctors performing surgery with their cellphone flashlights.

Medical supplies are running low, with some major surgeries, including amputations and brain operations, being performed without anesthesia.

As a goodwill gesture to show the Israeli government that it was willing to broker a larger hostage deal in exchange for the release of aid into Gaza, Hamas released two American hostages on Oct. 20 and two Israeli women three days later.

Ron Dermer, a top adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters last week that Israel had twice briefly ceased military operations in some areas in Gaza in order to facilitate the safe evacuation of the hostages released by Hamas. But that was a “temporary cessation of operations in order to actually get your hostages physically to safety,” he said, not a compromise on Israel’s stated goal of dismantling Hamas entirely.

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