Negotiations between Israel and Hamas on the release of dozens of hostages held in Gaza are edging nearer to an agreement, multiple sources have reported.
The Washington Post first reported on Saturday that a tentative deal for the release of around 50 Israeli women and children held hostage by Hamas in exchange for a five-day pause in the fighting was "close".
US deputy national security adviser Jon Finer later confirmed many areas of difference that previously existed have been "narrowed". "We believe we are closer than we have been to reaching a final agreement," he told CBS News, but added that the mantra that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" really does apply to such a "sensitive" and "challenging" issue.
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Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the prime minister of Qatar, which is mediating the talks between Israel and Hamas, said on Sunday the sticking points were now "very minor" and mainly "practical and logistical details".
The text of a deal had been "traded back and forth for weeks", reported CNN, with Hamas putting negotiations on hold at least once and "abruptly going dark amid the talks" following Israel's raid on Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.
One "key issue yet to be finalized is how to implement the deal, including around aid shipments to Gaza", CNN said. Hamas initially requested 500 trucks of aid per day, but anything over 200 trucks a day entering Gaza was logistically challenging, one source told the news network.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, is said to be demanding that Israel halt its aerial surveillance of Gaza for six hours per day so that Hamas operatives could locate hostages without being spied on by Israel. He is also pushing for the release of the roughly 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.
From its side, Israel has presented a list of 100 civilian hostages it wanted included in the agreement, although only around half that – mainly women and children – are expected to be released, staggered over several days, with the possibility of 20 to 25 more freed if pauses in the fighting are extended.
Talks have been "tenuous", said CNN, but negotiators from various countries, including senior officials from the Biden administration, are expressing "rare optimism about the progress" and an agreement may now only be "days away".
A report on the Egyptian Al-Rad channel, which cited a source in Hamas, said a ceasefire in exchange for the release of hostages could begin as soon as Tuesday morning, according to Haaretz.
If a deal is reached it will be implemented in two phases, sources with direct knowledge have told Axios: in the first, Hamas is to release around 50 women and children in exchange for a five-day pause in the fighting. As the five-day pause continues, Hamas will locate more women and children that it claims are being held hostage by other factions so that they could be released in a second phase.
Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "under pressure" from families of the hostages, who claim he is not doing enough to free those held by Hamas, said the BBC.
Israeli leaders have set dual objectives in their response to the 7 October attacks – to crush Hamas and to bring the hostages home – "but they have not made clear to families how they plan to balance the two", reported France 24. "Some of the hostage families have said they fear that the military offensive endangers their loved ones," the news site reported, but Israeli leaders "have argued that only military pressure on Hamas will lead to some hostage releases in a possible deal involving a temporary cease-fire".
On Saturday, protesters calling on the Israeli government to prioritise securing the release of hostages completed a five-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before holding a demonstration outside the PM's residence. Netanyahu, however, appears undeterred in his mission, reaffirming his first goal of the war was to destroy Hamas.
Benny Gantz, a critic of Netanyahu who joined his war cabinet following Hamas's surprise attack on 7 October, struck a slightly different tone over the weekend when he spoke directly to the families of those who had been taken.
Gantz said Israel has "decades if needed" to destroy Hamas, said The Times of Israel. By contrast, he said, "we don't have decades to bring the people home". Bringing hostages back is a priority, he said, but that does not override Israel's obligation to destroy Hamas, "however long it takes".
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