Hostage deal could be completed within days, but no breakthrough yet

The underlying contours of the deal being discussed involve three stages.

By Ariel Kahana | | Topics: Gaza, Hamas
Screenshot from an Israeli video ad on the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Credit: Israeli Diaspora Ministry and National Information Service.
Screenshot from an Israeli video ad on the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Credit: Israeli Diaspora Ministry and National Information Service.

Israeli officials believe that the last phase of the negotiations toward a hostage deal with Hamas will proceed rapidly, which would allow a deal to be concluded within days.

Mossad chief David Barnea returned on Saturday from Paris, and for the first time in weeks, he reported progress and optimism regarding a possible agreement.

The Friday and Saturday meetings built on last month’s initial gathering in the French capital as well as intermittent talks in Cairo aimed at realizing a proposal to free the remaining 134 Israelis being held by Hamas in exchange for an extended pause in the war.

The same players from the Jan. 28 Paris summit, and who met in Cairo on Feb. 13, were in the French capital for the latest round of talks—Barnea, CIA director Bill Burns, head of Egyptian intelligence Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel and Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.

According to officials involved in the matter, the emerging framework envisions a three-stage deal: First, about 40 captive civilians will be released in exchange for a month and a half ceasefire in Gaza as well as the release of many (unknown number) of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

In the next stage, Israeli soldiers are supposed to be released. The third stage will see the return of the bodies held by Hamas. Official sources refuse to say how many prisoners are likely to be released as part of the deal, as this issue lies at the heart of the ongoing talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to green-light another round of talks with the mediators to be held as early as the coming days. The assumption is that in that round, progress will be made regarding the details of the deal such as the ratio of prisoners per hostage, the duration of the ceasefire, and the identity of those released.

There is a desire on all sides to move quickly, especially with American pressure to complete the negotiations before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins the second week of March.

Alongside the progress made in Paris, an Israeli source emphasized that caution must be maintained and that there was no certainty that a deal would be achieved.

Another senior official said: “We are still far from a deal, but Hamas has come down from some of its demands following the hardening of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s positions.”

Following the progress, the War Cabinet met on Sunday night to discuss the continuation of contacts. Meanwhile, Palestinian sources said that Hamas was waiting to hear from the Egyptian and Qatari mediators about the degree of Israel’s seriousness in reaching a “real deal.”