Negotiators are edging closer to a deal that could see Hamas release as many as 75 hostages from Gaza, including dozens of children, multiple sources have told The Independent.
A diplomatic source said there was no firm agreement yet but talks were moving forward, amid feverish speculation that a deal, helped by Qatar and the US, could see people freed by early next week.
President Joe Biden has boosted hopes of a release, saying on Monday that he believed a deal to free the hostages was close. “I believe so,” Mr Biden said when asked whether a hostage deal was near, and crossed his fingers. The Independent understands these talks are the most substantial yet after multiple attempts to reach a comprehensive deal in the past which have been scuppered in the final stages.
“There is no agreement over the deal yet,” one source told The Independent, urging caution. “But there is an understanding that women and children will come out of Gaza between 50 and 75,” the sources said, adding that an estimated 40 children will be included. “This will involve a ceasefire or pause.”
A different diplomatic source with knowledge of the talks said that the news of a firm deal being agreed was premature – and there would be a three-day pause in hostilities as a “logical step” to be able to move the hostages.
“Some of the details have been misreported. Talks are ongoing and a concrete agreement has not yet been reached. Everyone involved is being cautious because the same stage was reached previously, only for the deal to collapse,” the second source said.
“All sides are discussing the release of between 50 to 70 women and children who were taken hostage. An agreement has not yet been reached on the release of the Palestinian prisoners [in exchange]. There have been no talks about the exchange of military personnel.
“It is a logical step to agree to a pause before moving the hostages, for their own safety.”
It is believed that any deal will have to be approved by the Israeli cabinet and could be subject to an appeal by the Israeli Supreme Court, if there are objections.
It is believed that any deal will have to be approved by the Israeli cabinet and could be subject to an appeal by the Israeli Supreme Court, if there are objections. It is also understood that there have been discussions about a possible exchange of some Palestinian women and children prisoners in Israel.
On 7 October Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking at least 240 people – including babies, foreign citizens and soldiers captive. Only four female captives have so far been released with the help of Egypt, Qatar and the US.
Israel, meanwhile, has imposed a crippling total siege on Hamas-run Gaza coupled with a ferocious bombing campaign that the health ministry inside the strip says has killed at least 13,000 Palestinians including 5,500 children. Israeli ground troops and artillery have penetrated deep inside the strip, including encircling and entering hospitals they accuse militants of using as bases.
Multiple Israeli officials have told The Independent the country was only focused on “the immediate and unconditional release” of all the hostages and that the ceasefire would not be on the table.
But pressure has mounted particularly from families of those held captive, who have been increasingly alarmed amid recent reports the military had discovered the bodies of two female hostages - Corporal Noa Marciano, 19, and Yehudit Weiss, 65 – in an area nearby Gaza’s largest hospital complex, al-Shifa.
On Sunday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, told ABC that Israel was hopeful a significant number of hostages could be released by Hamas "in coming days."
The same day Qatari prime minister sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told a press conference in Doha that the main obstacles to a deal were now “very minor”, with mainly “practical and logistical” issues to surmount.
A White House official also said the “very complicated, very sensitive” negotiations were making progress.
“I believe we are closer than we have been in quite some time, maybe closer than we have been since the beginning of this process, to getting this deal done,” White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told NBC’s Meet the Press.
The fraught hostage talks are underway as Israel is poised to expand its ferocious offensive against Hamas into south Gaza, a part of the 42km-long enclave where Palestinian civilians have been ordered by the military to evacuate to.
The United States, Israel man’s ally, has cautioned it not to embark on combat operations in the south until military planners have taken into account the safety of fleeing Palestinian civilians. Swathes of Gaza’s traumatised 2.3 million strong population have been on the move since the start of the war, sheltering in hospitals or trudging from the north to the south and, in some cases, back again, in desperate efforts to stay out of the line of fire.
The UN has repeatedly appealed for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, with its secretary general Antonio Guterres saying on Monday that the civilian death toll in Gaza is unlike any conflict since he took office. “We are witnessing a killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict since I am secretary general,” he said.
Alarm has also been raised about attacks on hospitals, as well as UN schools hosting displaced people. The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, saying on Monday that he was “appalled” by an attack on the Indonesian Hospital in Gaza which reportedly resulted in 12 dead. Gaza’s health ministry blamed Israel, which denied firing a shell at the hospital, saying its troops returned fire on militants who had fired on them from inside the 3.5-acre compound.
It comes as a group of 28 prematurely born babies evacuated from al-Shifa were taken into Egypt for urgent treatment on Monday. Several others died after their incubators were turned off amid a shortage of fuel to power them during Israel’s military assault on Gaza City. All of the evacuated babies were “fighting serious infections”, a WHO spokesperson said.
Lobna al-Saik, the mother of one of the babies, was one of a few parents accompanying some of the infants as they were taken in a convoy of ambulances from a hospital in southern Gaza, through the Rafah border crossing, into Egypt. “They are innocent children, premature babies,” an exhausted al-Saik said in a video interview provided by the Egyptian government. “My message to the world is ‘enough’.”
The Israeli military which has moved on several of Gaza’s hospitals said it had uncovered fresh evidence that al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest hospital had been used as a major base for militants. On Sunday the army released CCTV footage from the hospital showing what it said was Hamas militants forcibly transporting two hostages – a Nepalese civilian and a Thai civilian – into and around the hospital complex. They also shared video footage they said showed a 55-metre-long tunnel 10 metres underneath al-Shifa.
Hamas has repeatedly denied using the hospital as a command centre.
Over the weekend witnesses reported heavy fighting overnight on Sunday between Hamas gunmen and Israeli forces trying to advance into Jabalia, the largest of Gaza’s camps with nearly 100,000 people.
Jabalia, a poor and crowded district that grew out of a camp for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, has come under repeated Israeli bombardment that has killed scores of civilians, Palestinian medics say. Israel says the strikes have killed many militants dug into the area.