Qatar cites progress on Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations
Bloomberg News February 7, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — Qatar said Hamas has delivered a positive response to a proposal to halt fighting in Gaza in exchange for the release of some Israeli hostages, but a deal may still be far off.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the Palestinian militant group’s response was “a little over the top” and emphasized that negotiations haven’t finished. Hamas and Israel, in talks mediated by Qatar, still have to agree on key issues, including the length of any cease-fire and the number of hostages to be released from Gaza.
Qatar received Hamas’s reply about the general framework for an agreement to release some of the hostages, Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on Tuesday alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“The response includes some remarks, but overall it is positive,” Al Thani said, without providing more details.
U.S. officials declined to say if it would lead to a decisive breakthrough in the talks.
Hamas wants a 135-day truce that can be rolled out in three stages, Alarabiya TV reported, citing a draft of the group’s demands. The first stage would involved the release of Israeli civilian hostages, the delivery of more aid to Gaza, and Israeli forces withdrawing from civilian areas in Gaza.
The second would include the release of the remaining hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners and withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Gaza, Alarabiya, a Saudi channel, said. The final stage is for another 45 days of cease-fire and the exchange of corpses between Israel and Hamas.
The group wants Qatar, Egypt, the U.S., Turkey and Russia to be the guarantors of any agreement, Al Jazeera reported.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he won’t accept a complete stop to the war or a full military withdrawal from Gaza. Still, Israeli media cited officials saying they view the response as a high opening bid from Hamas that doesn’t preclude continued negotiation.
Blinken is on his fifth trip to the region since Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union, attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages. The U.S. has sought to ease the fighting and moderate Israel’s response after it launched a punishing military campaign on the Gaza Strip that’s killed some 27,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.
Around 100 hostages were free during an earlier, week-long truce that ended on Dec. 1. The fate of the remaining captives held in Gaza is dominating political discussion in Israel. The military announced on Tuesday that of the 136 still there, 31 are dead. Officials say another 20 may also be dead but this isn’t clear.
Blinken is set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, according to a State Department release of the envoy’s schedule.
Along with Egypt and Qatar, the U.S. has sought a fresh cease-fire deal to release some of the remaining hostages and halt the fighting, calling it the best way to end the conflict and ease tensions that continue to flare in the region.
Blinken was in Doha after a stop in Riyadh, where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The top U.S. diplomat said the prince, known as MBS and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, reiterated his “strong interest” in deal to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel. But there needs to be a cease-fire in Gaza and a “credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Prince Mohammed said.
The war in Gaza complicated the U.S.-led negotiations over a potential deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Still, it is meant to involve a U.S.-Saudi defence pact and officials are making progress on that part, Bloomberg has reported.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry informed the Biden administration there will be no diplomatic ties with Israel unless the “aggression” against Gaza is stopped and Israel recognizes the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, according to a statement.
“The best path forward, the most effective path forward right now, is to get an extended period of calm and to work toward an end to the conflict is through an agreement on the hostages,” Blinken said.
The question of whether to prioritize the hostages over military victory divides largely along the left-right axis in Israel. Those on the right, including key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, oppose many concessions for the hostages, saying Israel needs to defeat Hamas first and foremost. Opposition parties say the hostages take priority. Netanyahu seems caught between the two as he navigates his own political future as well as Israel’s.
Israeli troops are continuing to attack Hamas militants and infrastructure in and around the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, and the military says they are making progress. It contends that the Hamas brigade in Khan Younis will be broken within a week or so. Then the remaining military target is a Hamas brigade in and around the southern city of Rafah, where more than one million Gazans are clinging to life in tents and temporary shelters.
For Israel to take on the Rafah battle without massive civilian deaths, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would have to be permitted to return to their homes. How that could be arranged remains far from clear.
With assistance from Sherif Tarek, Zaid Sabah, Jon Herskovitz, Janine Phakdeetham and Kateryna Kadabashy.
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