Gaza's hostage deal at 'bite the bullet' point

First landmark agreement is on the horizon, Arab and western officials say

People search buildings destroyed during Israeli air strikes in Khan Younis, Gaza. Getty Images
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Efforts are intensifying to secure a key hostage deal between Israel and Hamas in what is now considered the only way to halt the killing in the ravaged Gaza Strip.

Western and Arab officials attending the IISS Manama Dialogue conference in Bahrain have hinted that a first landmark agreement is on the horizon, as indirect talks gain momentum.

The primary challenge, however, lies in reaching consensus on three key aspects: the number of Israeli hostages to be released, what Hamas wants in return, and whether a humanitarian "pause" precedes the deal or vice versa.

Nevertheless, there is increasing pressure on both sides to "bite the bullet" and reach an agreement that could alleviate the pressure in western and Arab capitals.

"We need something more than humanitarian support, we need pauses and release of hostages," a senior EU official told The National on Saturday on the sidelines of the 19th Manama Dialogue.

"We have to get the hostages released, the [humanitarian] pauses implemented. Don't tell me what comes first. If they go together, good, but the important thing is that both things have to happen," said the official. "I think this is going to be possible."

Israel has vowed to “crush” Hamas in response to the group's October 7 attack, when it broke through Gaza's militarised border to kill about 1,200 people, most of them civilians. Militants took about 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Israel's air and ground military campaign has killed more than 11,400 people, including 5,000 children, according to Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

Earlier on Saturday, White House co-ordinator Brett McGurk told the annual Manama conference that the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas is the only way to “pause” the war in Gaza.

"The release of hostages is the pathway to a pause in the fighting. To pause the fighting, release the hostages, the women, the children, the toddlers, the babies,” the American official said.

“The onus here is on Hamas."

Mr McGurk's reiteration came hours after US President Joe Biden pressed for the immediate release of Israeli hostages during talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim, whose country has been a key mediator.

"I will not discuss the details of those discussions here but they had been intensive and ongoing," Mr McGurk said of the talks.

On Friday night, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad called on Hamas to release all Israeli prisoners in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

According to Arab officials, Hamas is negotiating the release of 50 Israelis in exchange for a ceasefire and for Palestinian prisoners, while Israel insists that any deal should involve all of its hostages.

In 2011, Hamas negotiated the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of an Israeli soldier.

But experts said both sides are racing against the clock.

The Israeli government is facing mounting internal pressure, and Hamas needs a truce to show that it still has the leverage.

"The longer Hamas is able to continue hostage negotiations, the longer Israel will be under both domestic and international pressure," wrote Devorah Margolin for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Prolonging fighting in Gaza has its own costs, however. Hamas is bleeding commanders, equipment and personnel, and has lost several top leaders to Israel’s air campaign.

Updated: November 19, 2023, 12:48 PM