Doha: Qatari mediators on Wednesday sought to negotiate a deal between Hamas and Israel that included the release of around 50 civilian hostages from Gaza in exchange for a three-day ceasefire, an official briefed on the negotiations told Reuters. The deal, under discussion and coordinated with the US, would also see Israel release some Palestinian women and children from Israeli jails and increase the amount of humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza, the official said.
It would mark the biggest release in hostages held by Hamas since the Palestinian militant group burst over the Gaza border, attacked parts of Israel and took hostages into the enclave.Hamas has agreed to the general outlines of this deal, but Israel - which has since bombarded and sent forces into Gaza - has not and is still negotiating the details, the official said.
It is not known how many Palestinian women and children Israel would release from its jails as part of the agreement under discussion.The scope of the Qatari-led negotiations has changed significantly in recent weeks, but the fact that the talks are now focused on the release of 50 civilian prisoners in exchange for a three-day truce, and that Hamas has agreed to the outline of the deal, has not been reported before.
The wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, which has ambitious foreign policy goals, has a direct line of communication with Hamas and Israel. It has previously helped mediate truces between the two. Such a deal would require Hamas handing over a complete list of remaining living civilian hostages held in Gaza. A more comprehensive release of all hostages is not currently under discussion, the official said.
There was no immediate response from Israeli officials, who have previously declined to provide detailed comment on the hostage negotiations, citing reluctance to undermine the diplomacy or fuel reports which they deemed "psychological warfare" by Palestinian militants.
When asked by Reuters on Wednesday about the negotiations, Ezzat El Rashq, a member of the Hamas political bureau, did not directly confirm the deal under discussion.
Israel "is still refusing and delaying the release of 50 women and children captives and a true humanitarian truce, in exchange for the release of a number of women and children from our people in the occupation prisons and getting relief and humanitarian aid to all areas in the Gaza Strip", he said. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.
Qatar, where Hamas operates a political office, has been leading mediation between the Islamist militant group and Israeli officials for the release of more than 240 hostages. They were taken by militants when they stormed into Israel on Oct. 7. Israel says 1,200 people were killed during the rampage.
Israel then launched an unrelenting bombardment of Hamas-ruled Gaza and late last month began an armoured invasion of the enclave, where more than 11,000 people have been killed, around 40% of them children with more buried under the rubble, according to Palestinian officials.
Israeli Minister Benny Gantz, who is in the war cabinet, told a news conference on Wednesday: "Even if we are required to pause fighting in order to return our hostages, there will be no stopping the combat and the war until we achieve our goals."
Asked to elaborate on what is hindering the hostage deal, Gantz declined to give any details.
Previously, talks had focused on Hamas releasing up to 15 hostages and a pause in the Gaza fighting of up to three days, sources in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East said.
There was no immediate comment from Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Hamas political office in Doha.
Two Egyptian security sources said there was only agreement so far on limited truces in specific areas of Gaza. They said Israel had shown reluctance to commit to any wider deal, but appeared to have moved closer to doing so by Tuesday.
Hamas says ready to release hostages in return for ceasfire
Hamas' armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, said on Monday that it had told Qatari negotiators it was willing to release up to 70 women and children in return for a five-day truce.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that "we have been working relentlessly for the release of the hostages, including using increased pressure since the start of the ground incursion". Any deal faces many obstacles.
It is unclear whether Hamas is currently able to compile an accurate list of hostages it holds since the war has caused it communications and organisational problems in Gaza, a Western diplomat in the region said.
Gathering the hostages for any simultaneous release, which Israel wants, would be logistically difficult without a ceasefire, said another source in the region with knowledge of the negotiations.
There had also been uncertainty over whether the military and political leadership of Hamas were in agreement, though this was later resolved, and also concern that Israeli military pressure was making a deal harder, the same source said.