Hostage talks resume as Hezbollah continues to fire missiles

Hamas has given its initial approval to a U.S.-backed proposal for a gradual truce and hostage exchange in Gaza, abandoning a key demand that Israel commit to ending the war completely from the start, a Hamas official and an Egyptian official said Saturday. A key obstacle appears to be Hamas’s desire to obtain “written guarantees” from mediators that Israel will continue to negotiate a permanent ceasefire agreement once the first phase of the ceasefire is implemented. The Hamas official told The Associated Press that the group’s approval came after it received “verbal commitments and guarantees” from mediators that the war will not resume and that negotiations will continue until a permanent ceasefire is achieved. According to a report published by Walla on Friday, Mossad chief David Barnea informed Qatari mediators that Israel rejects Hamas’s request for a written commitment from mediators that negotiations on the second phase of the ceasefire can be extended indefinitely if necessary. Axios reported that Washington is working to reach a compromise on the issue that is acceptable to both sides and that CIA Director William Burns will travel to Doha next week to participate in the negotiations.

According to Egyptian state-affiliated Al Qahera News TV, Cairo will also host Israeli and US delegations to discuss “outstanding issues” in the potential deal. Citing a senior official, Al Qahera News reported that Egypt is also holding talks with Hamas to finalise the ceasefire and hostage-for-prisoner deal. Israel has expressed cautious optimism in recent days that Hamas’s stance makes a deal more likely. A source in the Israeli negotiating team, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Friday that there is now a real chance of reaching an agreement. This was a stark contrast to previous situations in the nine-month war in Gaza, when Israel said Hamas’s conditions were unacceptable.

Also on Saturday, Haaretz cited an unnamed foreign source as saying that Israel has made new demands that could prolong the negotiations. It also cited an unnamed Israeli source familiar with the negotiations as saying that Israel has taken a “very tough stance” in the talks. “Hamas had already given its approval to the last position presented by Israel. But in Friday’s meeting, Israel presented new demands,” the foreign source cited as saying.

Several media outlets also reported that Israeli sources estimated the talks would last about three weeks. If a deal is reached, it could mark the first lull in fighting since last November and pave the way for further talks to end a devastating nine-month war. But all sides have warned that a deal is not yet certain. Hamas and Egyptian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations, said Washington’s phased agreement would first include a “full and complete” six-week ceasefire that would see the release of a number of hostages, including women, elderly people and the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. During those 42 days, Israeli forces would also withdraw from densely populated areas of Gaza and allow displaced people to return to their homes in northern Gaza, the two sources said.

During that time, Hamas, Israel and the mediators would negotiate the terms of the second phase that could see the release of the remaining male hostages, both civilians and soldiers, the officials said. In return, Israel would release other Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Finally, the third phase would see the return of all remaining hostages, including the bodies of dead prisoners, and the start of a multi-year reconstruction project that would be funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. A Hamas source told Reuters that the proposal calls for the mediators to secure a temporary ceasefire, the delivery of aid and the withdrawal of Israeli troops, as long as indirect talks to implement the second phase of the deal continue. Israel has sought to keep the wording of the transition between phase one and phase two of the agreement vague enough to allow it to resume fighting against Hamas in Gaza if it so wishes, while Hamas has sought to ensure that Israel will not be able to resume fighting once the parties agree to the initial six-week phase of the agreement.

Efforts to secure a ceasefire and the release of hostages in Gaza gained momentum as Barnea traveled to and from Qatar for negotiations and Hamas briefed Hezbollah on its latest proposal. Hamas announced on Friday that it rejected the presence of foreign forces in Gaza, which could hamper international plans for post-war governance of the Strip. Barnea arrived in Doha at the head of a skeleton delegation to discuss the future of the talks and returned to Israel later in the day. After Friday’s talks in Doha, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to send an Israeli negotiating team for follow-up discussions next week in Qatar, the prime minister’s office said. The statement noted that “gaps between the parties” remained.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal quoted an official familiar with the hostage talks as saying that Mossad officials told mediators they were optimistic that the Israeli government would accept the proposal currently under discussion. Netanyahu’s decision to resume talks is said to have outraged the far-right coalition, which has threatened to overthrow the government if the war ends. Also on Friday, opposition figure Benny Gantz was said to have offered Netanyahu a safety net for any “responsible proposal.” Negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States have so far failed to secure a truce in Gaza and the release of prisoners since a week-long ceasefire in November saw Hamas free 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Israel believes 116 people remain in Hamas hands, though dozens are no longer alive. Israel’s spy chief traveled to Qatar in a latest attempt to free hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, nearly nine months after the war in Gaza broke out when the group led thousands of people in an assault on southern Israel that left some 1,200 people dead and 251 kidnapped. Barnea met with Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. The White House said it welcomed Netanyahu’s decision to send a delegation on Friday. The decision came after a phone call on Thursday in which US President Joe Biden urged Netanyahu to resume talks. Walla quoted the US president as telling Netanyahu: “We believe there is now a chance” to bring the hostages home. The latest round of talks is based on an Israeli proposal outlined by Biden in a May 31 speech. Talks subsequently stalled, but a senior US official said Thursday that Hamas’s latest response “advances the process and could provide the basis for closing the deal, although significant work remains to be done.” The US believes Israel and Hamas have a “great opportunity” to reach a deal, the official said. In the process, Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into Israel, and this morning, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), about 20 rockets were fired into Hezbollah’s barrage in the Lower Galilee. Several rockets were shot down by air defenses, the statement said. One strike near the community of Kfar Zeitim seriously injured one man, and other strikes sparked fires.