The Israeli government has drawn up a new deal for the release of dozens of hostages from Gaza, according to an official with direct knowledge of the matter.
The proposal comes after the latest rounds of talks between U.S., Israeli and Qatari officials. CIA Director Bill Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani met in Warsaw on Monday to discuss the potential for a new hostage deal. Israel, which does not negotiate directly with Hamas, presented the agreement via Qatar.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the deal involved the release of 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for 500 Palestinian prisoners, as well as a humanitarian package for Gaza that would include medical supplies, fuel, and water.
The official said the deal was based on the principle of “one for ten”, meaning that for every Israeli hostage released, 10 Palestinian prisoners would be freed. The official said this ratio was acceptable to both Israel and Hamas, and that the prisoners to be released were not involved in serious crimes or attacks against Israelis.
The official said the deal also included a guarantee from Qatar that it would monitor the released prisoners and prevent them from returning to violence or terrorism. Qatar, which has close ties with Hamas and hosts its political leader Ismail Haniyeh, has played a key role in mediating between the two sides and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
The official said the deal was presented to Hamas on Monday night, and that Israel was waiting for a response. The official said Israel hoped to finalize the deal as soon as possible, as the situation of the hostages was becoming increasingly dire.
The official said the deal was a “humanitarian gesture” and not a political concession, and that Israel remained committed to its military campaign against Hamas until it achieved its goals of degrading its capabilities and restoring deterrence.
The official said the deal was not related to the ongoing efforts to reach a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which have been stalled by disagreements over the terms and conditions.
The October Attack
The war, which erupted on October 7 after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel with thousands of rockets, has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, and displaced tens of thousands more. The UN says more than half of Gaza’s 2 million people lack access to clean water, electricity, and health care, and warns of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel says it is defending itself from Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, and that it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. Israel accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields and firing rockets from densely populated areas.
According to Israeli authorities, 132 people remain unaccounted for after they were abducted and taken to Gaza during the October 7 attacks. An estimated 240 people were taken prisoner, but 105 were later released by Hamas during a six-day ceasefire at the end of November. The Israeli military said it mistakenly killed three hostages in northern Gaza who had escaped from their captors and expressed “deep remorse” over the incident. Of the 132 still unaccounted for, Israel says that 20 of them are believed to be dead.
The families of the hostages have been urging the government to do more to secure their release, and have held rallies and protests to raise awareness of their plight. They say they have received credible information that some of the hostages are in critical condition and need urgent medical attention. They also say they have been subjected to torture and abuse by their captors.
The U.S. has publicly expressed its support for Israel’s right to self-defense, but has also urged it to de-escalate the situation and pursue a cease-fire. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Israel on Monday as part of a regional tour that also included Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Austin met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and other senior officials, and discussed the security situation and the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership. According to Israeli media reports, Austin conveyed a message from President Joe Biden, who has been under pressure from some members of his own party and human rights groups to take a tougher stance on Israel and push for an end to the hostilities.
Biden has also expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and has urged Israel to ensure the protection of journalists, after an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building that housed several media outlets, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, on Saturday. Israel said the building was also used by Hamas’s military intelligence and that it gave advance warning to the occupants to evacuate. The AP and Al Jazeera condemned the attack and called for an independent investigation.
The U.S. has also blocked several attempts by the UN Security Council to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire, saying it would not help to de-escalate the situation and that it preferred to pursue quiet diplomacy.
However, some analysts say the U.S. may have more leverage over Israel than it appears, and that Austin’s visit could signal a shift in the U.S. approach.
“The U.S. has a lot of influence over Israel, not only because of the military and economic aid, but also because of the political and diplomatic cover it provides,” said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London and a senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House.
“Austin’s visit could be a way of telling Israel that enough is enough, and that it’s time to stop the escalation and move to a more surgical and intelligence-based operation against Hamas,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mekelberg added that the U.S. also has an interest in restoring stability in the region and preventing the conflict from spilling over to other countries or fueling extremism.
“The U.S. wants to focus on other priorities, such as China, Iran, and climate change, and it doesn’t want to see the Middle East in flames,” he said. “The U.S. also knows that the longer the war goes on, the more it will radicalize the Palestinian population and undermine the prospects for a peaceful solution.”