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Peace and Conflict

Waiting for Hamas: hostage deal in the balance

Waiting for Hamas: hostage deal in the balance via BICom 

What’s happened: Mixed reports are emerging from Cairo about the prospects of an agreement on a hostage release/prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas.

  • An unnamed Israeli official told Channel 13 News yesterday that “we’ve held very significant talks in the past few hours. The United States has taken meaningful leadership and is applying heavy pressure on the mediators. The American proposal is far-reaching; it includes a very broad mandate. No one can say that the Israeli rope is short. All of the elements are in it—moving IDF troops and a return of Gazans to the northern Gaza Strip.”
  • Yesterday, Defence Minister Gallant said, “We are ready to make difficult decisions in order to get the hostages back. I think that we are at a good point for a deal.”
  • Hamas officials, meanwhile, told international media that current proposals still fell well short of their minimum demands. Senior Hamas official Ali Baraka said: “We reject the latest Israeli proposals that the Egyptian side informed us of. The politburo met today and decided this.”
  • Another senior official, Mahmoud Mardawi, said the proposal “doesn’t address in any way our demands: a full withdrawal of the IDF from Gaza, a ceasefire, an unconditional return of the displaced to the northern Gaza Strip and help in the Gaza Strip’s reconstruction.”
  • On a visit to Germany – a key Israeli ally – Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana offered hope for a deal but cautioned that “pitted against us is a cynical and cruel enemy that has already resorted in the past to lies and emotional manipulations. These moments of the negotiations are tense moments in which we need to have nerves of steel; [we need to] test the seriousness of [Hamas’s] intentions and to embrace and to strengthen the families.”
  • Visiting Washington, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid pledged his support for any hostage deal.
  • Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu came under pressure from far-right elements in his coalition. Finance Minister Smotrich and National Security Minister Ben Gvir both complained that the wider security cabinet was being sidelined and crucial decisions on the flexibility given to Israeli negotiators and other aspects of the war taken only by the narrower war cabinet.
  • Smotrich first made his criticisms public in a letter made available to the media, before later meeting privately with Netanyahu. His demand that a security cabinet meeting be held was agreed to, with a meeting set for this evening.
  • Both Smotrich and Ben Gvir oppose any hostage proposals which limit Israeli freedom of operation in the Gaza Strip. Ben Gvir said yesterday that Netanyahu would have no mandate to continue as prime minister unless an operation in Rafah – home to Hamas’s remaining four battalions and thought to contain both its senior leadership and many of the surviving hostages – was authorised.
  • Smotrich, meanwhile, wrote: “For several weeks now, I have been warning that instead of taking our foot of the gas, we need to increase pressure on Hamas in Gaza and that this is the only way we will be able to get back the hostages and destroy Hamas.”
  • In response, Netanyahu said publicly that “we are constantly acting to achieve our objectives, first among them the release of all our hostages, and the attainment of total victory over Hamas. That victory mandates an entry into Rafah and the elimination of the terrorist battalions there. That is going to happen; there is a date.”

Context: Israel’s military withdrawal yesterday can be interpreted as a tangible display of its flexibility and openness to a hostage deal. However, it has made clear that it retains the freedom to operate in Gaza if required, including a future operation in Rafah.

  • An important, and tragic, complicating element of a potential deal is Hamas’s ability to furnish Israel with 40 names of hostages meeting the criteria for the first phase of a release.
  • Under proposals, women, female soldiers, men over the age of 50, and men under the age of 50 with serious medical conditions are set to be freed. Reports suggest that Hamas has claimed it does not have 40 hostages still alive who meet these criteria.
  • Israel is thought to have responded that 40 remains the number to be released, and that if that is indeed the case, a single digit number of living hostages not meeting these criteria should be included. For each of these hostages, Israel would agree to a higher number of Palestinian prisoners being released from Israeli jails. 
  • Israel is thought to be prepared to show significant flexibility on the return of northern Gazans to their former places of residence. Such a return would likely be phased and subject to demographic restrictions to ensure that Hamas and other terror organisations do not return.
  • Hamas’s previous model of collective decision-making amongst its most senior leadership is thought no longer to apply. Instead, the final decision on agreeing to or rejecting proposals is thought to rest solely with its Gazan leader Yahya Sinwar. Delays in reaching and then getting responses from Sinwar will likely mean Hamas’s response comes in the next days.
  • To Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s claims that the security cabinet is being sidelined, last November’s release of over 40 hostages was indeed first agreed by the war cabinet before then being put to the security cabinet.
  • Hamas’s demand that 900 Palestinian prisoners be released, including at least 100 serving life sentences for murder, is hugely contentious in Israel. Frequent reference is made to the 2011 exchange of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit. Multiple released prisoners went on to take part in October 7th or other terrorist acts against Israel, chief among them the mastermind of the massacres, Sinwar.
  • The Israeli calculation remains that an operation in Rafah remains necessary for the full defeat of Hamas and is also the best way to exert pressure on Hamas to agree to hostage releases. The Israel withdrawal from Khan Yunis presents an opportunity for Gazan civilians to leave the Rafah area.
  • The withdrawal of forces from Gaza also allows the military to afford troops an opportunity for time away from the front and for maintenance work to be done on military equipment.
  • US National Security Spokesperson John Kirby said yesterday that “we do not support a major ground operation in Rafah and we have no indication that it will happen soon. The Israelis indicated to us that there would be no action in Rafah before we hold a meeting on the issue. We informed the Israelis that we are interested in the daily entry of 300-350 trucks into the Strip.”
  • COGAT has announced that 419 aid trucks entered Gaza yesterday – the highest number of trucks to enter in a single day since the start of the war. The previous record high came the day before, with 322 entering.

Looking ahead: Negotiators now await a formal Hamas response to the latest proposals.

  • Following the pressure from right-wing coalition members, the security cabinet is due to meet this evening. It would likely be reconvened to approve a war cabinet decision if there is a breakthrough in hostage negotiations.
  • If these negotiations fail to produce a deal, Israel’s political echelon remains primed to authorise an operation in Rafah.