Hostage negotiators in Qatar build momentum behind ‘more for more’

Protesters release balloons in Tel Aviv on Tuesday as they call for the release of Israeli hostages being held in Gaza. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
Protesters release balloons in Tel Aviv on Tuesday as they call for the release of Israeli hostages being held in Gaza. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Israeli-Hamas hostage-release negotiations continue to roll forward, as American and Israeli spy chiefs met Tuesday with a Qatari mediator and discussed a plan for eventual release of all Israelis held captive in Gaza, including soldiers.

The “more for more” logic that has guided the hostage talks so far remains strong for both Israel and Hamas, according to a source close to the negotiations. He explained that although no final commitments have been made, “there is a willingness on both sides” to make a broad deal that would free all Israeli captives in exchange for longer pauses in fighting, release of more Palestinian prisoners and more humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza.

Tuesday’s meeting brought together CIA Director William J. Burns, Mossad Director David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who has acted as intermediary with Hamas leaders based in Doha.

The structure of Tuesday’s talks was the same as the Nov. 8 meeting in Doha that produced the breakthrough that led to the hostage releases that began over the weekend and have now freed a total of 61 Israeli captives, including dual nationals, and 150 Palestinians. As before, the Qataris asked Hamas to explain its parameters for release and then shared those with the Mossad representative, who detailed Israel’s requirements.

The negotiators agreed on five categories of Israeli hostages for future releases, the knowledgeable source said. The five groups are: men too old for reserve military duty, female soldiers, male reservists, active-duty male soldiers, and the bodies of Israelis who died before or during captivity. The total is well over 100, but the source said he couldn’t provide a precise number as yet.

Hamas has expressed “willingness to negotiate on all five categories”, the source said. He added that parameters of the exchange — such as how many Gaza captives would be freed each day, how many Palestinian prisoners would be exchanged for each Israeli, and how much humanitarian assistance would be sent into Gaza — haven’t been worked out.

The remaining hostages are spread among different groups, in addition to Hamas. Some are held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which, like Hamas, is an Iran-backed faction. But some are held by small militant groups that are little more than gangster families. Hamas has told the Qataris that they are “confident they can get everyone”, the source said, even though they are scattered.

One grim problem is that while Hamas and Islamic Jihad held their hostages in tunnels, where they were relatively safe from bombing and bombardment, the smaller groups might have had their captives aboveground, where they were in greater danger. Hamas “is not sure who’s alive and who’s not”, the source said.

If the hostage releases can continue — and extend to the military captives that Hamas prizes most — the negotiators will then inescapably have to confront the issue of whether fighting would resume after captives are freed.

This endgame will be the trickiest issue of all. Israel continues to say it will resume fighting until it has destroyed Hamas’s ability to rule Gaza. Hamas, for its part, wants to survive, physically and politically. It’s hard to see the space for compromise on these questions, which both sides see as existential.

But the hostage release process has defied expectations so far, and that may continue. The key has been the step-by-step confidence building adopted by the Qatari mediators. At first, none of the negotiators was sure that Hamas would keep its word or even that the political leaders could negotiate with the military wing hidden in tunnels.

But those big hurdles were overcome. The many small details that negotiators feared would derail the talks were resolved, too.

For the Biden administration, which has been struggling to contain the political fallout of the Gaza war in the United States and abroad, the hostage-release process has been the one unalloyed success. Officials will be pleased that it seems to be continuing — but the vexing question of how this war ends becomes more important every day.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin”.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *