Chance for progress on US hostage deal proposal


What’s happened: Reports suggest that there is a chance for agreement on a hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas following negotiations in Qatar.

  • According to the reports, Israel has agreed to a US bridging proposal which would see between 700 and 800 Palestinian security prisoners, including around 100 life-term prisoners, released in exchange for 40 hostages among women, children, and the sick and elderly being held in Gaza.
  • It is suggested that there is also movement on one of Hamas’s key demands – the return of northern Gazans to their previous areas of residence. Israel is said to be prepared to consider the gradual return of more than 2,000 people each day once the hostages begin to be released. Israel is unlikely to agree to the return of Gazan men.
  • Elsewhere, Prime Minister Netanyahu said yesterday that Israel would operate in the city of Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold, despite US and international pressure not to do so.
  • “On October 7,” Netanyahu said, “Hamas committed what even President Biden called absolute evil. Absolute evil cannot be defeated when it is left intact in Rafah. We will enter Rafah and we will achieve total victory.”
  • Netanyahu’s remarks came during a reading with soldiers of the Megillah, the Purim story from the Book of Esther, in which Haman, the enemy of the Jewish people is defeated. “We destroyed Haman, we will also destroy Sinwar,” said the prime minister.
  • The IDF also began to operate yesterday in the vicinity of Al Amal Hospital in Khan Yunis, following intelligence that Hamas operatives have been using the facility.
  • Meanwhile, operations continue in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, where troops found large quantities of weapons. 20 operatives were killed in the hospital over the last day, and others arrested.
  • IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Hagari said last night that Hamas had hijacked Shifa and was using its patients as human shields. “Hamas is destroying the Shifa Hospital,” he said, and “is firing from inside the Shifa emergency room and throwing explosive devices from the Shifa burn ward.”
  • 30 IDF troops were injured in combat over the weekend, 25 of them in Gaza. Two are listed as in severe condition.

Context: After weeks of frustrated negotiations, a senior Israeli official put the latest proposals’ chances of success at 50-50.

  • The Israeli negotiating team, led to by Mossad head Barnea and including Shin Bet Director Bar and the IDF’s Nitzan Alon, flew back to Israel from Doha last night. US CIA Director Burns also left.
  • The proposal reportedly accepted by Israel is similar to one floated by Qatar three weeks ago, and rejected by Israel then. A crucial difference, however, is that the current US proposal allows for the release of fewer life-term Palestinian prisoners than the Qatari proposal did.
  • The current framing is far more accommodating to Hamas than the proposals originally mooted in the Paris negotiations, which would have seen around 400 prisoners – and only 25 life-termers – released.
  • In previous responses, Hamas has pushed for a full Israeli withdrawal of forces from Gaza and a permanent ceasefire. Over the weekend, a Hamas official once more complained that Israel “refuses to agree on a comprehensive ceasefire and refuses the complete withdrawal of its forces from Gaza.”
  • The US has repeatedly warned Israel against an operation in Rafah, and continues to do so. Speaking on ABC’s ‘This Week’ yesterday, Vice-President Harris said “we have been clear in multiple conversations and in every way that any major military operation in Rafah would be a huge mistake.” Asked if there would be consequences from the US towards Israel if Israel went ahead, Harris said “I am ruling out nothing.”
  • President Biden has previously referred to Rafah as a US “red line”, and US officials suggested earlier in March that the Administration would consider placing conditions on its vital military aid to Israel if an operation went ahead.
  • Rafah is home to four of Hamas’s remaining battalions, and an estimated 1.5 million Gazans – the city’s usual population of 200,000 having been greatly swelled by Gazans who have fled fighting elsewhere in the Strip.
  • Israel has previously pledged to undertake an evacuation of the civilian population prior to any operation. Such an evacuation is hugely complex and demanding.
  • US media has reported that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) operatives who have recently regrouped in Shifa Hospital may include senior leaders. The reports suggest they considered that Israel had ceased its operations in northern Gaza and that it was safe to return.
  • Since Israel began its latest operation in Shifa last Monday, the IDF says that 500 Hamas and PIJ operatives have been arrested, while 170 are thought to have been killed.
  • A notable arrest last week was Mahmoud Qawasmeh, a high-ranking Hamas official who was an instigator of West Bank terror.

Looking ahead: Negotiators will now await Hamas’s response to the US proposal. A reply is expected within two days, with the relay of information to Hamas’s Gazan leadership continuing to take time. The final decision on accepting or rejecting the proposal is likely to rest with its Gazan leader, Yahya Sinwar.

  • Israeli Defence Minister Gallant left last night for an official visit to Washington. He will meet the US secretaries of defence and state, the national security adviser, and the CIA director. Before leaving, Gallant said they would be discussing the war and the return of the hostages, as well as the situation in the north and the ongoing supply of US arms to Israel. Reports over the last month have suggested that the supply of military aid has slowed.
  • Minister Dermer and head of Israel’s National Security Council Hanegbi are set to follow Gallant to the US later this week, for further discussion on Rafah