Breakthrough in negotiations in Israel-Hamas war – hostage-for-prisoner release

13 Israeli hostages and 11 other nationals were confirmed to have been released in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners as a 4-day ceasefire begins Friday to allow their safe passage and to allow much needed aid into Gaza.

Released hostages disembark from an ambulance, as a convoy of vehicles carrying hostages abducted by Hamas militants during the October 7 attack on Israel arrives through the border crossing with Gaza, amid a hostages-prisoners swap deal between Hamas and Israel, in Egypt November 24, 2023. Al Qahera News/Reuters TV via REUTERS

Shortly after 7am on Friday morning, the fighting stopped as per the 4-day ceasefire agreed to by Israel and Hamas, negotiated by Qatar, to ensure the safe passage of 50 Israeli hostages to be released by Hamas following their capture on October 7, with an initial 24 released on Friday. In exchange, 150 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons will be released, with 39 released on Friday.

The Qatari foreign ministry confirmed that a total of 24 hostages abducted by Hamas were released, of which 13 Israeli women and children have been confirmed to have been transferred by the Egyptian Red Cross and will be transported into Israel by helicopter on Friday afternoon. The deal includes the safe passage of 200 trucks carrying critical aid and fuel to Gaza, a fact verified by reporters who witnessed a convoy of trucks entering the Gaza strip on Friday morning.

The pause in fighting comes after nearly seven weeks of war that has claimed thousands of lives. “The skies will be completely clear to help the hostages while they are on the move”, Maji Al-Ansari, Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson, told the press on Thursday. Hamas has said that every evening, they will be submitting a list of the hostages to be released the following day.

The hostage release and humanitarian pause follows negotiations between Hamas and Israel via CIA and Mossad chiefs, US President Joe Biden and leaders of Israel, Qatar, and Egypt over an “excruciating” period of five weeks resulting in the truce agreement, according to a US official.

Despite both Israel and the US believing there were over 50 women and children hostages, and Israel’s estimates that some 40 hostages are under the age of 18, they agreed to proceed with securing the release of the initial 50 of an estimated 240 Israeli hostages.

The hope was that this deal might encourage Hamas to release more hostages later and Israel offering extensions in the humanitarian pause, an extra day for every 10 hostages released.

While the current deal returns only 50 hostages, US officials express confidence that it will pave the way for additional releases. Ten Americans, including two women and a 3-year-old girl, remain unaccounted for. The White House remains determined to bring everyone home, and the deal is structured to incentivize the release of all hostages.

The Qataris, who were mediating, couldn’t reach Hamas to confirm the deal. When Hamas resurfaced, the group demanded that the Israel Defence Forces leave Al-Shifa hospital. The talks resumed after Biden’s intervention, and the emir of Qatar conveyed the final offer to Hamas, which they approved on Tuesday morning.

The negotiation process, described as a “pilot” negotiation, started weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel. The successful release of two American citizens from Gaza on October 23 demonstrated effective communication with Hamas via the Qataris. The White House then worked to secure the release of a larger group of hostages.

The foundations of the deal were laid with the involvement of Mossad in Israel and CIA Director Bill Burns in the US, in constant liaison with Qatari Prime Minister Al Thani. Negotiations continued with the US, Israel, and Qatar discussing details such as the timeframe, number of hostages, safe passage corridors, and surveillance. Secretary of State Blinken pressed Israel to accept “humanitarian pauses,” facing initial rejection from the Israeli government. The talks progressed slowly, with the hostage issue being a key point of contention.

Different deal permutations were discussed, and initially, Israel and the US insisted on the release of all women and children in the first phase. However, Hamas only guaranteed 50 and refused to provide identifying information about the hostages, although reports from the Israeli government indicate they have been given a list of the expected hostages to be released on Thursday. Eventually, after intense negotiations, Hamas relented on November 12, seemingly guaranteeing the release of 50 women and children hostages.

Following a hearing between the families of captive Israelis and the Israeli government’s war cabinet, where the families decried the government’s focus on “death” to Hamas instead of the “life” of their captured relatives, pressure on Israel’s government mounted to a boiling point.

Later, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom many Israelis are calling to resign, in a televised address, appeared a changed man, speaking of hostages over and above his usual rhetoric surrounding the annihilation of Hamas.

On Friday morning, shortly after aid was allowed to enter the Gaza strip, media reports relayed that the first 13 women and children to be released by Hamas back into Israel will not be American citizens. So far, the truce is being respected, with negotiators, Israel, the hostages’ families, and the world holding their breath, hoping for the safe return of all the hostages over the next few days.

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