Hamas flexible on hostage and detainee swap but not on ceasefire or Gaza withdrawal

Antony Blinken returns to Middle East for fifth time since October 7 to support efforts to halt the war

People hold signs and photos in Tel Aviv at a rally calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Getty Images
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Hamas is adamant any deal to halt its war with Israel must include a permanent ceasefire and full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza but is willing to show some flexibility on a proposed detainee and hostage swap, sources briefed on the militant group’s deliberations told The National on Monday.

They said Hamas’s leadership in Gaza also wants international guarantees, including from the US, Russia and China, that Israel would not resume military operations in Gaza after it frees the 132 hostages it has been holding since October.

It also wants a timetable for the reconstruction of Gaza, which has been devastated by Israeli bombardment, and similar guarantees for its completion, they added.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has to date killed more than 27,000 Palestinians and injured twice as many. It has also displaced most of the territory’s 2.3 million population and razed large parts of built-up areas.

The Israeli onslaught is in response to Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel on October 7, when an estimated 1,200 people were killed and 240 others taken hostage.

During a truce negotiated by the US, Qatar and Egypt in late November Hamas released more than 100 hostages in return for the release of several hundred Palestinians from Israeli jails. The truce collapsed on December 1.

The sources said that while Hamas was prepared to show flexibility if Israel refuses to free high-profile Palestinian figures from jail, it was unwilling to compromise on its demand that up to 5,000 detainees are freed in exchange for the 132 hostages or their remains.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country was not ready to accept a deal at any price to release the hostages amid a rift in his coalition over a US push to get more aid into Gaza.

The comments on Sunday were made against a backdrop of growing divisions within his coalition between religious nationalist parties opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians and a centrist group that includes former army generals.

“The efforts to free the hostages are continuing at all times,” Mr Netanyahu said in the comments released to the media before a cabinet meeting. “As I also emphasised in the Security Cabinet, we will not agree to every deal, and not at any price.”

The White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has said Washington will continue to try to get more aid into Gaza to alleviate its acute humanitarian crisis.

“And that means pressing Israel on issues related to humanitarian assistance that we have helped unlock and get into the Gaza Strip, and there needs to be much more of it,” he told US network CBS.

The proposals Hamas is weighing up were hammered out in Paris last week by mediators from the US, Qatar and Egypt. The sources said Hamas was consulting with other militant groups in Gaza with the intention of arriving at a unified response that presents a united front after nearly four months of war.

“The response will come from the tunnels of Gaza, not the political leaders in exile,” said one source, alluding to the network of tunnels in the enclave that Hamas has for years used to attack Israel and where its fighters take refuge from Israel's bombardment.

“If anything, this frames the ascent of Hamas’s military wing and the diminishing power of the political leaders in exile,” said the source.

Israel has yet to give a formal public response to the proposals, but Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel has no intention of freeing thousands of Palestinians and will not fully withdraw troops from Gaza or end the war before Hamas’s governance and military capabilities are dismantled.

As the impasse persists, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due back in the Middle East on Monday for his fifth visit to the region since the Gaza war began.

He is expected to give the proposals a diplomatic push at a time when the need to halt the hostilities has taken on added urgency with the surge in attacks by Iranian-backed groups in solidarity with Hamas, which have triggered reprisals from the US.

Ahead of the trip, Mr Blinken stressed the need for “urgently addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza”. Aid groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the devastating impact of nearly four months of war on the besieged territory.

Mr Blinken is also expected to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Qatar.

Updated: February 07, 2024, 12:59 PM