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Peace and Conflict

Cautious optimism over latest hostage release talks | Update 26th February 2024

 Cautious optimism over latest hostage release talks via BICom

Cautious optimism over latest hostage release talks

What’s happened: Following the success of initial talks with US, Egyptian, and Qatari mediators in Paris, an Israeli team has been dispatched to Qatar to continue negotiations which could lead to the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip and a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

  • Senior Israeli officials have expressed cautious optimism that a deal can be reached. One said “at the end of the day, we don’t know what is happening inside Sinwar’s head. It will take a lot of time until the deal ripens, but the direction is good.”
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu said “We’re all working on it… I can’t tell you if we’ll have it. But if Hamas goes down from its delusional claims… then we’ll have the progress that we all want… it’s too soon to say if they’ve abandoned [their ‘delusional’ demands].”
  • In Paris, Israel, US, and Arab mediators agreed an outline for a potential hostage deal which is now subject to Hamas’s approval.
  • If successful, this deal would likely allow for a six week ceasefire, the release of 40 hostages including women, children, female soldiers, the elderly and unwell.
  • It would also see Israel release hundreds of Palestinians convicted for terrorist offences currently held in Israeli prisons.
  • Hamas is understood to have somewhat softened its previous positions, and has indicated that it is open to the prospect of a temporary ceasefire and redeployment of the IDF within the Gaza Strip rather than a permanent cessation of hostilities and immediate withdrawal.
  • However, some of its demands will likely be more difficult for Israel to accept. These include allowing internally displaced Gazans to return home (especially in the north of the Gaza Strip), and the number of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Israeli hostages.
  • According to Israeli media, Prime Minister Netanyahu is also understood to be demanding that “high-level Palestinian security prisoners” released in a potential deal do not return to the Palestinian Territories but are instead deported to Qatar. Doha’s position on this proposal is unclear.
  • There are also reports that Israel is not prepared to advance on the parameters of a deal until it first receives a list specifying which of the 130 hostages held in Gaza since October are still alive.

Context: Although signs of progress are encouraging, a hostage deal remains a distance away.

  • Israeli negotiators have been granted a limited mandate while in Doha, and it is understood that these rounds of talks will focus on the technical aspects of a potential deal. In the event of their success, it is likely that their primarily role will be to pave the way for more substantial talks with Hamas.
  • Israeli Finance Minister Smotrich has opposed this proposed deal, branding it as “delusional”, and indicating that he would vote against it as its terms are too favourable for Hamas.
  • The demand that released high-security Palestinian prisoners be exiled to Qatar rather than return to the Palestinian Territories is also a potential stumbling block in negotiations.
  • The IDF continues to set the conditions for its likely impending assault on Rafah, Hamas’s final remaining stronghold in the Gaza Strip. It has presented its evacuation plan for civilians to Israel’s war cabinet, as well as well as an overview of its operational strategy.
  • While defeating Hamas in Rafah is a critical war objective for the IDF, Netanyahu has indicated that an assault on the southern Gazan city could be delayed if a hostage deal and truce is reached.
  • He said “if we have a deal, it’ll be delayed somewhat. But it’ll happen. If we don’t have a deal, we’ll do it anyway. It has to be done. Because total victory is our goal, and total victory is within reach. Not months away, weeks away once we begin the operation,”
  • Combat operations continue across the Gaza Strip, with the IDF’s main efforts remaining in Khan Yunis and north of Gaza City. An operation to degrade and destroy Hamas in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City is ongoing, and other similar actions are highly likely.
  • Five Israeli troops were seriously wounded in three separate incidents in southern and northern Gaza yesterday: an IED attack, an anti-tank missile attack and a firefight with terrorists.
  • The Gaza Strip’s humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate significantly. Israel’s war cabinet has authorised the direct entry of aid into the northern Gaza Strip, while the UK and Jordan have airdropped aid to the Tal al-Hawa Hospital. UNRWA’s chief, Philippe Lazzarini, has said that his agency has reached “breaking point” amid a budgetary shortfall of $450m.
  • Meanwhile, Israel continues to fight on multiple fronts:
    • In the past week, Hezbollah has fired numerous rockets and an anti-tank missile at northern Israeli communities, as well as launched a drone which was shot down by the Israeli Air Force. The IDF has launched its own strikes into Lebanon, and two Hezbollah operatives have been killed in an explosion in Qusayr close to the Lebanese-Syrian border. Israel has declined to comment on this incident.
    • Israel’s Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, has warned that the IDF will increase its strikes against Hezbollah in response to its daily attacks on northern Israeli communities, even during a truce with Hamas in Gaza.
    • The IDF has also confirmed that Hezbollah successfully shot down one of its drones over Nabatieh in southern Lebanon.

Looking ahead: Israeli negotiators will begin laying the groundwork for a potential hostage exchange and ceasefire deal. While unconfirmed, reaching such an agreement before Ramadan would be highly desirable, and it is a realistic possibility that significant progress is made in Doha over the next week.

  • Later this week, a second Israeli delegation will head to Cairo for further talks.