Israel and Hamas probe for a pause that both sides need

Displaced Palestinians try to keep warm by a fire on Tuesday at a camp in Rafah in southern Gaza. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)
Displaced Palestinians try to keep warm by a fire on Tuesday at a camp in Rafah in southern Gaza. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Israel and Hamas are groping toward a resumption of negotiations to trade Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, accompanied by an extended pause in fighting, as well as a sharp increase in aid for desperate civilians in Gaza.

These deadlocked issues are the blood knot in this war. For a traumatized Israel, release of the hostages is a paramount aim. For a Palestinian population on the edge of famine and pandemic disease, a new cease-fire is an existential requirement. For Hamas leaders trapped underground, the deal offers the possibility of political survival.

There isn’t yet a breakthrough. But recent progress in framing issues is the first opening since December in an impasse that has turned Gaza into a nightmare of death and disease. If the indirect negotiations resume — with mediation from Qatar and Egypt aided by the United States — it could open a path toward a major de-escalation of the war.

The move to resume negotiations was outlined this week by knowledgeable Israeli and U.S. sources, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issues. Like every other aspect of the Gaza conflict, the bargaining is bounded by deep mistrust and internal political divisions. But officials who were bleak about progress a week ago are more hopeful now.

The main obstacle to resuming the indirect talks is Hamas’s demand for a long-term cease-fire. Israel refuses to grant that, but its negotiators are ready to accept a pause that would last weeks and could perhaps be extended as conditions evolve. Israel is pressing Egyptian and Qatari mediators to persuade Hamas to accept the negotiating framework, so bargaining over the details of swapping hostages and prisoners can begin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thunderously rejected Hamas’s demand for a permanent cease-fire on Sunday. “I reject outright the terms of surrender of the monsters of Hamas”, Netanyahu said. But he faces growing domestic pressure to free the estimated 136 hostages who remain in Hamas control, so he badly needs a release plan.

Negotiators envision several stages in the hostage-release process. First, Hamas would free about 10 women and children who were supposed to be released under a previous agreement that collapsed last month. In a second “humanitarian” phase, Hamas would free about 40 sick, injured and elderly hostages along with female Israeli soldiers. In the remaining group of roughly 86, Hamas would hand over male hostages, including soldiers, and finally the bodies of those who died during the Oct. 7 attack or in subsequent months of captivity.

Each departure of Israeli hostages from Gaza would be accompanied by release of Palestinian prisoners. Sources say the ratio would probably be more than three Palestinians for every Israeli. Among the hundreds of Palestinians to be freed would be some whom Israelis view as terrorists and killers, which would make this a bitter bargain.

The final swap lists wouldn’t be agreed on until shortly before release, but one Palestinian detainee who might be freed is Marwan Barghouti, who led the first and second intifadas. Barghouti is probably the most popular political leader in the West Bank and Gaza and potentially could unite Palestinians in a push toward statehood.

The renewed swap agreement would be accompanied by a lengthy cease-fire. This would allow humanitarian assistance that’s desperately needed in Gaza but blocked by continuing violence and Israeli intransigence. For example, a U.N. team that was supposed to enter northern Gaza 10 days ago to assess water, housing, food and sanitation needs has been blocked by continued skirmishing between Israeli forces and remnants of Hamas.

Such a pause in fighting could open new routes for aid, including ships unloaded at floating docks offshore. Doctors and medicines are urgently needed as infectious disease spreads in the crowded, dirty camps into which Palestinian refugees have been driven. Gazans are experiencing “unspeakable suffering”, wrote Leonard Rubenstein and J. Stephen Morrison, two prominent public health specialists, in a recent report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If negotiators can address the two most anguishing issues — Israel’s Oct. 7 hostages and the suffering of Palestinian civilians — that might open the way to progress on other problems that now seem irreconcilable. Netanyahu insists he won’t allow a Palestinian state with full sovereignty, seemingly blocking the outcome the United States favors and Saudi Arabia demands. But diplomacy is about bridging such gaps.

State Department officials are exploring sovereignty models that might satisfy both sides, such as the “compacts of free association” that allowed statehood for Pacific island nations such as Micronesia and Palau, with restrictions on defense and other sensitive issues. U.S. officials stress to their Israeli counterparts that the best guarantee for long-term security is a regional structure of cooperation that unites Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states against Iran and its proxies — but the Arabs demand that, as part of the deal, Israel accept a Palestinian state.

Israel needs this cease-fire and prisoner swap as badly as Hamas does. The endgame of the tunnel war could go on for many months. But aboveground, Gaza is becoming a version of warlord-dominated Somalia. Israel and Hamas need to start moving toward de-escalation of this conflict now, while they still have a chance.

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

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