Israel and Hamas deal on truce and hostage swap within reach, officials say

Sources say seven-day truce will be renewable for up to a month and could include release of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti

Israeli hostages being handed over to the International Red Cross by Hamas militants on November 30. Reuters
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A new Israel-Hamas deal for a seven-day pause in Gaza during which a prisoner and hostage swap would take place is within reach, Egyptian officials with knowledge of the negotiations told The National on Thursday.

While Hamas and other Palestinian factions have said there will be no hostages freed until Israel stops its aggression, the officials said the framework of the potential deal is being negotiated but cautioned last-minute issues could delay it or even derail the entire process.

One of the sticking points is the release of Marwan Barghouti, a senior and popular member of the mainstream Fatah faction, whose name has frequently been floated as a possible future Palestinian president.

The negotiations were being conducted mostly by intelligence and security operatives who seek approval from their political leaders every step of the way.

The officials said Israel was expected to release about 300 Palestinians held in its prisons, including several high-profile Palestinians serving life sentences, including Barghouti.

In exchange, Hamas and its main ally in Gaza – the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad group – would release at least 50 hostages, mostly women and elderly people, the officials told The National.

The prisoner and hostage swap would be staggered over the seven-day truce and its continuation would depend on both sides honouring their part of the deal, they added.

Alongside Barghouti, who has been touted as a future leader of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian detainees Hamas wants released include Ahmed Saidat, Abdullah Barghouti and Ibrahim Hamed, a founding member of Hamas's military wing.

Marwan Barghouti, 64, was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 2004 by an Israeli court.

The deal is being mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar.

According to the officials, the US is eager for an agreement to be struck as soon as possible.

Washington reportedly wants a deal before it turns its attention to dealing with Yemen's Houthis, who have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea in support of Hamas against Israel, disrupting global trade and forcing some shipping companies to avoid the area altogether.

The Egyptian officials spoke a day after Hamas's political leader Ismail Haniyeh and several leading officials from the militant group arrived in Egypt for talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and his senior aides.

The talks, according to the officials, touched on the proposed hostage and prisoner swap and temporary truce but focused primarily on the future of Gaza.

Israel's leaders have been facing growing calls to secure the release of the remainder of the Hamas-held hostages as the war rumbles on. President Isaac Herzog said this week his country was “ready for another humanitarian pause and additional humanitarian aid in order to enable the release of hostages”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had recently sent his spy chief on two trips to Europe in an effort to “free our hostages”.

US news site Axios on Monday reported David Barnea, head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, met Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and CIA director William Burns in Europe to discuss a deal to free the hostages held by Hamas.

Future of Gaza

The previous truce ended on December 1 after 240 Palestinians were released from Israeli jails in exchange for 80 hostages freed by Hamas. The pause, also mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt, included the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza through Egypt's Rafah crossing in the Sinai Peninsula.

The next truce, the officials said, would possibly be used to negotiate the terms of a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the fate of the coastal enclave after the cessation of hostilities, or what has come to be known as “day-after” scenarios.

They said talks on the future of Gaza were far more complicated than those focused on a truce and a prisoner and hostage swap, with a timetable that is expected to extend for years.

“No one seems to have a comprehensive vision of what will become of Gaza,” one official said. “Variables change and new ones emerge all the time and a great deal of what happens in Gaza appears dependent on goodwill.”

Israel, for example, wants to create at least four buffer zones inside the strip to deny Hamas and other militants direct access to its territory, a demand vehemently opposed by Hamas, according to the officials.

Proposals floated for postwar Gaza include a demilitarised Palestinian state in Gaza and the currently occupied West Bank. Hamas is publicly opposed to a demilitarised state.

Essential to the process, said the officials, was reconciling Hamas and Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Hamas violently threw out Fatah from Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza after a 38-year occupation. Hamas has since ruled the enclave alone.

Egypt has tried to mediate between the two parties several times in recent years without success.

Under some scenarios, a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would be followed by elections in which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 88, would be replaced by a younger leader accepted by a majority of Palestinians and their political factions.

A transitional government would be formed after the elections and the deployment of a UN-led multinational force in Gaza for a limited period of time.

One large hurdle yet to be overcome is that Israel’s onslaught in Gaza has rendered large parts of the strip uninhabitable and in need of years of reconstruction. Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and several Gulf Arab states are the designated leaders of what promises to be a multibillion-dollar rebuilding drive in Gaza.

Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:23 PM