An agreement between Israel and Hamas for the release of hostages in Gaza, in exchange for a pause in the Israeli bombardment of the Strip, seems close. U.S. President Joe Biden himself expressed this view on Monday; asked at the White House if such a deal would be announced soon, he replied, “I think so.” Negotiations to secure the release of some of the 240 hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza since the militia’s incursion into Israel on October 7 appear to have entered their final stage, and senior U.S. officials are optimistic that a deal could be reached in a matter of days. This is also the expectation in Brussels. The agreement would allow for the release of 50 detainees in exchange for a cessation of hostilities of four or five days.
“We think that we are closer than we have been perhaps at any point since these negotiations began weeks ago,” White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union.
For his part, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby indicated Monday in a press conference that the U.S. continues “working hour by hour” to obtain the release of the hostages. “We’re hopeful, but there’s still work to be done. And nothing is done until it’s all done,” Kirby stressed.
Biden also hinted a deal was close with his brief answer to a question from the press on the White House lawn, after the traditional ceremony of “pardoning” a couple of turkeys on the eve of Thanksgiving.
The U.S. president had already confirmed the existence of talks last week, following his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping outside San Francisco. At a press conference, Biden stated that he had been “deeply involved in moving on the hostage negotiation […] We’ve gotten great cooperation from the Qataris,” he added. A nod from his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, caused Biden to cut himself short just as he said: “I think the pause and that Israeli — that the Israelis have agreed to is down to — I’m getting into too much detail. I know, Mr. Secretary. I’m going to stop.”
U.S. negotiator Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for Middle East affairs, has been in the region for the past week. McGurk met this weekend with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani to address some outstanding issues, including monitoring compliance with the pact and the flow of humanitarian aid into the Strip, which Israel fears could go to Hamas rather than to civilians in need.
The talks have been ongoing for weeks but were interrupted following Israel’s attack on the Al Shifa hospital.
EU calls for “immediate humanitarian pauses”
In the EU, where the diplomatic offensive to secure the passage of aid into Gaza and “immediate humanitarian pauses” in the fighting has been stepped up, there is also hope that the agreement will be concluded soon. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has traveled to Jordan and Egypt, where she also visited the Rafah crossing to the Strip, to discuss the situation in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Josep Borrell, visited Israel and Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, where he met with the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority. In the background, a meeting is being prepared with Mediterranean countries in Barcelona, the main topic of which will be Israel’s war against Hamas. Humanitarian aid, which Brussels has quadrupled to €100 million ($109.5 million) is arriving in dribs and drabs through the Rafah crossing and the EU is calling for the opening of other channels to be opened up when the humanitarian pauses begin.
The EU, however, has not been unanimous in demanding a ceasefire for besieged Gaza, but it has been united in asking for “immediate pauses” in Israel’s military operation. While most Western partners are calling for the hostages to be released first and then for the pauses to begin, Arab countries are calling for the reverse to be the case.
The situation in the Strip is “absolutely horrific,” Borrell informed EU foreign ministers on Monday during a videoconference meeting in which the “urgency” of the release of the hostages and concern about the rapid deterioration of the situation in the West Bank, and the risk of escalation in the occupied territory, were discussed. Israel’s war against Hamas in response to the October 7 attacks continues and the siege of the Strip remains in place, but the EU — the largest donor to the Palestinian territories — is already discussing what will happen after Israeli forces withdraw and reconstruction in Gaza. Borrell is preparing an analytical report on the future of the Strip for discussion at the December ministerial meeting, while the West is trying to revitalize the two-state solution: Palestine and Israel.
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