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Renewed hope for a hostage deal

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What’s happened: There is cautious optimism over the potential for a hostage/ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, with both sides seemingly closer to a mutually agreeable arrangement than at any point since the last deal was reached in November 2023. However, despite progress, significant gaps remain.

  • The optimism began on Friday, when Mossad Director Barnea returned from a meeting in Qatar with Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani with news of Hamas’s response to the current terms.
  • The current proposal aligns with the broad outline of what has become known as the ‘Biden Plan’, despite it originating from Israeli officials. The plan would result in a three-stage process:
    • In stage one, a “full and complete” six-week ceasefire would be in effect, during which 18-31 women, elderly, and wounded from among the hostages would be released. The IDF would continue to withdraw from populated areas of Gaza and allow for the return of (some) displaced northern Gazans to their areas of residence.
    • After 16 days of stage one, negotiations would take place for stage two, during which remaining male hostages would be released. Israel, for its part would release Palestinian security prisoners currently held in Israeli jails.
    • In stage three, any remaining hostages would be released, including the bodies of those who have already died. A process of reconstruction would begin in Gaza.
  • Netanyahu last night released a list of Israeli non-negotiable demands, sparking anger both in Israel and amongst negotiators from mediating countries. Netanyahu’s four points were:
    • “Any deal will allow Israel to resume fighting until all of objectives of the war have been achieved.”
    • “There will be no smuggling of weapons to Hamas from Egypt to the Gaza border.”
    • “There will be no return of thousands of armed terrorists to the northern Gaza Strip.”
    • “Israel will maximize the number of living hostages who will be released from Hamas captivity.”
  • Opposition leader Lapid said, “I have one response to the announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office: What is it good for? We are at a critical moment in the negotiations, the lives of the hostages depend on it; why issue such provocative messages? How does it contribute to the process?”
  • The government’s far-right elements responded angrily to talk of a deal, though Benny Gantz, whose National Unity faction recently left the government, swiftly offered Netanyahu a parliamentary safety net in the event a “responsible proposal” is reached.
  • Tens of thousands of Israelis yesterday joined in a ‘Day of Disruption’, in a bid to compel the government to successfully conclude a deal. In echoes of last year’s protests against the government’s judicial reforms, around 150 prominent high-tech companies announced they had given permission for employees to miss work to join the demonstrations.
  • Thousands marched on the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Demonstrators also blocked multiple highways, and protested outside the homes of government personnel, including Defence Minister Gallant, Foreign Minister Katz, and Knesset Speaker Ohana.
  • In a striking display of protest, Einav Zangauker, the mother of hostage Matan, suspended herself in a cage hanging from a Tel Aviv bridge.
  • “There is a deal on the table that can save lives, and all of us,” she said. “I want Matan at home, I want all the hostages at home now… I want to tell Netanyahu: The keys to this cage and all the other cages are in your hands. For nine months, you have abandoned the hostages. Netanyahu — stop dragging your feet. We want them at home and it’s up to you to bring them home.”

Context: Israel has now marked nine months since the October 7th massacre.

  • 251 people were kidnapped that day, whilst 116 remain in captivity of them 102 men, 16 women, 2 children. In addition to the 116 remaining, four other hostages are also in Gaza: two bodies, and two living hostages from three separate incidents in 2014. Israel will seek to have the two living hostages, Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu, included in the phase one release.
  • According to Israel at least 43 of the abductees are no longer alive and their bodies are being held by Hamas.
  • So far, 135 abductees have been released, of whom 108 are Israelis and 24 are foreign nationals. Seven hostages were rescued, and 16 murdered hostages have been located by IDF forces and their bodies returned to Israel. Three abductees were mistakenly shot by IDF forces; their bodies were returned to Israel.
  • Due to the animosity and lack of trust there remain numerous points for clarification. At its core for Israel will be what provisions will be in place if Hamas abrogate the agreement – that will justify them renewing the fighting.  For Hamas the opposite, if they do the deal, what guarantees that Israel won’t kill Sinwar as soon as he steps out of a tunnel.
  • Further obstacles include:
    • The explicitness – or, conversely, the vagueness – by which a permanent end to the fighting in Gaza is provided for. Hamas seems to have moved some way from insisting it be explicitly provided for in the terms of an agreement, to accepting that it will be dealt with in negotiations during the phases. Israel, however, will seek to insist that it be able to respond militarily to any Hamas violation of the terms of the ceasefire.
    • The number of Palestinian prisoners to be released, and the identity of them. Israel is concerned about releasing murderous terrorists, some of whom will not be allowed to return to the West Bank. There is speculation that the deal could include high-profile prisoners like Marwan Barghouti, and over whether Israel will have a veto on releasing specific prisoners.
    • Whether the Israeli withdrawal from populated areas in Gaza would include its presence in the Netzarim Corridor, considered vital to thwarting the reorganisation of Hamas as a fighting force, and the Philadelphia Corridor, which effects their ability to rearm.
    • How will Israel balance allowing displaced northern Gazans to return to their former areas of residence with preventing terrorists from moving north?
    • The status of the buffer zone between Israel and Gaza, and the right of Gazans to access it.
    • Whether a provisional ceasefire in the first phase includes Israel ceasing its intelligence flights over Gaza.
  • There is further speculation that if a deal is reached with Hamas in the south, it will also be honoured by Hezbollah in the north.

Looking ahead: It is thought that the negotiations will last around three weeks, with difficulties remaining in communications between Hamas leader in Gaza Sinwar, the foreign leadership, and the negotiating teams.

  • Mossad director Barnea is scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Qatar with the Qatari prime minister, CIA director Burns, and the director of Egyptian intelligence.