Has Hamas Backed Down on Hostage-Deal Demands?

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

After nearly nine months of war in Gaza and Israel, could an end be in sight? Perhaps, although it would require Hamas to stick to a concession it apparently offered during the most recent round of talks in Doha.


Until now, Hamas has refused to enter into any hostage-exchange agreement with Israel without a commitment to end the war. With the Rafah operation all but finished and Hamas' supply lines shut down, however, the IDF has largely mooted that issue. Their leadership in Qatar has apparently decided to cut bait and get some breathing room for what's left of the organization in Gaza. And the Israelis want to put an end to the fighting for their own reasons:

Mossad officials told the countries mediating talks that they were optimistic that the Israeli cabinet would accept the most recent proposal, an official familiar with the negotiations told the Wall Street Journal.

Netanyahu agreed to dispatch a team to Doha for talks on Thursday after Hamas appeared to drop its upfront demand that Israel agree to a permanent ceasefire before a three-stage hostage deal got underway. ...

Earlier Friday Hamas informed its ally Hezbollah it had agreed to a proposal that would lead to a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the step, two sources familiar with the matter said on Saturday.

Er ... yeeeeaaaaah. The Hamas billionaires in Doha likely want an end to the fighting in Gaza, mainly because the Qataris may kick them out soon and leave them vulnerable to the Mossad. That doesn't mean Yahya Sinwar wants an end to the fighting, and unfortunately for everyone, Sinwar's the problem, as the aforementioned WSJ report dutifully reminds readers:

Through Qatar and Egypt, the U.S. is now exerting significant pressure on Hamas to reach a deal, said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence. Qatar has threatened to evict the group’s political leadership from its capital. Israeli military pressure on the ground, especially its seizure of Gaza’s roughly 9-mile southern border with Egypt, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, also has helped push the militant group back to the negotiating table, Yadlin said. 

Whether Hamas’s military and political leadership is committed to that shift will only become clear if talks make progress. Sinwar has consistently resisted a cease-fire, calculating that more fighting and Palestinian civilian deaths work to his advantage, according to messages he has sent to mediators.


Has Sinwar's position changed at all? No report today suggests that he would agree to these terms, and without that, talk is essentially useless. 

And one sour note has already sounded today after the first reports of progress emerged. Hamas apparently demanded an indefinite cease-fire regardless of how long second-round negotiations took, and Israel said forget it:

Clauses 8 and 14 of the Israeli offer stipulate that those negotiations can extend beyond six weeks if the sides are still engaged in the talks and that the Egyptian, Qatari and American mediators will “make every effort to ensure” that Israel and Hamas remain at the table.

In the updated proposal Hamas submitted earlier this week, the terror group dropped the words “make every effort” from Clause 14, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel yesterday. The updated phrase would read that the mediators would “ensure” that the sides remain at the negotiating table — an ostensibly more binding formulation.

Barnea informed Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Abdulrahman Al Thani that Israel cannot accept the Hamas formulation for Clause 14, according to the Walla news site.

Israel fears that Hamas will use a written commitment from the mediators to ensure the talks continue indefinitely to drag out the first phase negotiations instead of releasing the remaining living hostages who are supposed to be freed in the second phase.

Of course that's what would happen. Sinwar has to find some way of leveraging Israel into allowing him to hold onto what power is left in Gaza. By dragging out the second round forever, Sinwar would buy time to reconstitute his forces and to keep a grip on control of Gaza's ministries and police forces. That task would be far more difficult to do while limited to a six-week window. 


In other words, it's still not clear whether Hamas is negotiating in anything close to good faith. Given their terrorist mission of complete annihilation of Israel, it's prudent to assume they aren't. But Israel has some pressing political and security realities that would make a cease-fire beneficial to them, as long as they can ensure Hamas doesn't reconstitute itself. Back to the WSJ:

For Israel, a shift in the battlefield calculation has led analysts to conclude that the Israeli security establishment, which includes the military, Mossad and the Shin Bet internal security service, is now pushing the Israeli government for a deal.

Israel is soon set to complete its military operation in Rafah, which it called Hamas’s last bastion and part of a smuggling route that allowed weapons to keep flowing into southern Gaza. Israel said its military is transitioning to a lower-intensity counterinsurgency campaign, consisting of intelligence-based raids in areas it sees that militant groups are trying to regroup. Despite the shift, targeted raids in the enclave will still involve airstrikes and intensive fighting, and could even last years, say analysts.

As long as the Rafah operation was in full swing, the Israeli government and military could point to the necessity of continued fighting to destroy Hamas. With major operations in Gaza declared to be complete, and the military increasingly concerned about escalation of a simmering conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, the moment could be ripe for a deal.


A cease-fire on the southwest flank could make it easier to put pressure on Hezbollah to back off in the north. At the very least, Hezbollah can no longer count on Hamas pinning down the large numbers of IDF forces in Gaza, which means that a threat of invasion into the sub-Litani region is growing. For the Israelis, a hostage deal would provide a short-term political boost to Likud, although it may not be enough to rescue Benjamin Netanyahu in the longer run.

Assuming the deal with Hamas holds, could Netanyahu get it accepted in the Knesset? His hard-Right allies are threatening to bolt, but rival Benny Gantz announced today that the National Unity party would vote for the deal:

At the meeting, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir reportedly expressed anger at the decision, saying it relegated the cabinet to nothing more than “a decoration.”

“I’m telling you, Prime Minister — if you make a decision alone, it is your responsibility, and you will also remain alone. I was not elected by half a million people to sit in the government while the heads of the security establishment make the decisions,” Ben Gvir said, according to the reports. ...

Gantz said in a phone call with Netanyahu on Friday that his National Unity party would back up the government in passing a “responsible” truce-hostage deal, Hebrew media reported.

 Is this a responsible deal? Only if Hamas can be trusted to stick to it. Given their track record on cease-fire agreements, a very large amount of skepticism is warranted. But in the current political and diplomatic environment, not to mention the security environment, Israel may have little choice but to see it play out ... assuming Sinwar doesn't torch the agreement first. 


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