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The US and Qatar signalled on Sunday that they were edging closer to a deal to release a significant number of civilian hostages held by Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Any breakthrough is expected to lead to a multi-day pause in Israel’s offensive on Gaza and an increase of urgently needed aid into the coastal enclave that is enduring a deepening humanitarian crisis.
The plight of about 240 hostages has exacerbated the trauma of Israelis, and become a politically sensitive issue for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he pushes ahead with the offensive against Hamas, while families of the captives have pressured his government to do more to secure their freedom.
US deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer said Washington believed it was “closer than we have been to reaching a final agreement”, adding that many areas of difference that “previously existed have been narrowed”.
The Biden administration and Israel have resisted mounting calls for a ceasefire in the war with Hamas, instead insisting any pause in the Israeli air and land offensive on Gaza would only come after the Palestinian Islamist group agrees to free a large number of the civilian captives seized in its October 7 attack.
Talks to secure the release of civilian captives are being facilitated with Qatar, a US ally that hosts Hamas’s political office in Doha. Negotiators have previously believed they were close to securing a deal, only for the talks to stall over disagreements between Israel and Hamas.
Qatari prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told reporters in Doha on Sunday that “there has been good progress in the past few days”. He added that minor obstacles remained between Israel and Hamas agreeing a deal.
Brett McGurk, the White House’s Middle East adviser, told a conference in Bahrain on Saturday that a pause in Israel’s assault on Gaza and surge in humanitarian relief and fuel into the strip “will come when hostages are released”.
Israel has laid siege to Gaza and its forces have moved deeper into the strip since it launched its offensive after Hamas killed about 1,200 people in its October 7 attack on southern Israel, according to Israeli officials.
Almost 11,500 people have been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials, while UN officials have warned of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the strip that is home to 2.3mn people, amid crippling shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine.
The deal to secure the release of a large number of civilian hostages held by Hamas would lead to Israel pausing its offensive for several days and allow the delivering of more aid into the strip. Hamas also wants a number of Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons to be released.
People close to the negotiations have been saying that the talks are progressing, but keep faltering over details. These include Hamas’s demand for a five-day pause, Israel’s demand for it be shorter, and the question of where released Palestinian prisoners would go, a person briefed on the negotiations said.
“The mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed really does apply, and we do not yet have an agreement in place,” Finer told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “And so until that is the case, you know, we’re not going to lay out all the details in public.”
Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, told ABC’s This Week programme that he was hopeful that a significant number of hostages could be released by Hamas “in coming days”.