Hamas, Israel leaders suggest deal is ‘close’ on captives, Gaza truce

Qatar-mediated deal could see Hamas exchange captives for Palestinian prisoners; US President Biden says ‘we’re now very close’.

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, November 21, 2023 [Leo Correa/ AP Photo]

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has said a truce deal with Israel was close and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped for “good news soon” about captives held by the Palestinian group, even as Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip has continued unabated.

After weeks of war in the Gaza Strip, US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday of the talks mediated by Qatar: “We have been working on getting hostages out for weeks. We’re now very close.”

“We could bring some of those hostages home soon, but nothing is done until everything is done,” he said.

Haniyeh said Hamas officials delivered their response to Qatari mediators in the ongoing talks, according to the Reuters news agency.

The statement gave no more details, but Hamas official Ezzat el-Reshiq told Al Jazeera that negotiations were centred on how long the ceasefire would last, arrangements for delivery of aid into Gaza and the exchange of Israeli captives held by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Both sides will free women and children and details will be announced by Qatar, he said.

The agreement will include a ceasefire, arrangements for aid trucks to supply all areas in Gaza, and the transfer of the injured to other countries for treatment, according to el-Reshiq.

‘We will continue to be at war’

Hours later, Netanyahu appeared to temper expectations, saying that Israel will continue its war against Hamas, even if a temporary ceasefire is reached to release captives.

An unnamed US official who spoke to Reuters said the agreement being discussed would see the release of 50 Hamas-held captives, mostly women and children, in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners and a pause in fighting of four or five days.

Netanyahu was convening with his war cabinet, security cabinet and full government in consecutive meetings to discuss whether to accept a proposed short-term truce deal that would see some captives released, as well as Palestinian prisoners.

In comments ahead of an expected cabinet vote on a ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu vowed to press ahead.

“There is nonsense talk outside that after returning our abductees we will stop the war,” he said.

“So I want to clarify: We are at war, we will continue to be at war, we will continue to be at war until we reach all our goals. We will destroy Hamas, we will return all our abductees and the missing and we will ensure that in Gaza there won’t be any party that poses a threat to Israel,” he said.

He added any pause will allow Israel’s military to “re-prepare” for fighting.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have opposed the deal. Both are members of Israel’s security cabinet and main government cabinet.

Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said it was “fully expected that this deal will be approved”.

“They have said that what the Israeli military has been doing in Gaza has been effective, that that’s how this deal has been reached – but they opposed any kind of Palestinian prisoner release,” Jamjoom said of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.

But “that is not enough of a vote to keep this vote from happening”, he added.

According to Jamjoom, in terms of public sentiment, it remains unclear whether the deal is going to receive major backlash.

“There is some concern that perhaps because Palestinian prisoners are being released, that [it] could cause some people to become upset,” he said. But Israeli officials have said they are “vetting these Palestinian prisoners very carefully”, he noted.

UN resolution

Talk of an imminent deal on captives has been circulating for days as Qatari mediators sought the agreement for Hamas and Israel to exchange captives for prisoners in return for a temporary ceasefire that would boost emergency aid shipments to Gaza civilians.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip” to allow for aid delivery and medical evacuations after four failed attempts to respond to the Israel-Hamas war.

The UN chief, Antonio Guterres, said on Monday that the world was witnessing an “unparalleled and unprecedented” level of civilian death in Gaza compared with any other conflict since he became the international organisation’s secretary-general in 2017.

“What is clear is that we have had in a few weeks thousands of children killed, so this is what matters,” Guterres said in New York while presenting a new UN environmental report.

The government media office in Gaza released updated casualty figures on Tuesday since Israel launched its air and ground assault on Gaza after the October 7 attacks by Hamas targeting Israel.

More than 14,128 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, including at least 5,600 children and 3,550 women. At least 33,000 people have been injured, it said, while more than 6,800 people are missing, either trapped under rubble or dead and not yet identified.

Hamas and allied groups took about 240 captives during their incursion into southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies