US sees signs of progress on captives deal, temporary truce in Gaza

AP , Sunday 28 Jan 2024

U.S. negotiators are making progress on a potential agreement under which Israel would pause military operations in Gaza for two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 Israeli captives, according to two senior administration officials.

Gaza
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. AP

 

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, said Saturday that emerging terms of the yet-to-be-sealed deal would play out over two phases.

In the first phase, fighting would stop to allow for the remaining women, elderly and wounded captives to be released by Hamas.

Israel and Hamas would then aim to work out details during the first 30 days of the pause for a second phase in which Israeli soldiers and civilian men would be released. The emerging deal also calls for Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

While the proposed deal would not end the war, U.S. officials hope such an agreement could lay the groundwork for a durable resolution to the conflict.

The New York Times first reported on Saturday that progress had been made towards an agreement for a pause in fighting in exchange for the remaining captives.

CIA director Bill Burns is expected to discuss the contours of the emerging agreement when he meets on Sunday in France with David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, along with Egypt and Qatar officials for talks centred on the captive negotiations, according to three people familiar with the scheduled meeting who were not authorized to comment publicly.

President Joe Biden on Friday spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Calls with both leaders focused on the captive situation.

“Both leaders affirmed that a hostage deal is central to establishing a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensure additional life-saving humanitarian assistance reaches civilians in need throughout Gaza,” the White House said in a statement about Biden's call with the Qatari leader. “They underscored the urgency of the situation, and welcomed the close cooperation among their teams to advance recent discussions.”

Burns heads to France for the high-level talks after White House senior adviser Brett McGurk travelled to the Mideast this week for talks on the captive situation.

If Burns sees progress in his talks in France, Biden may dispatch McGurk back to the Mideast quickly to try to complete an agreement. McGurk during his talks this week was also laying the groundwork for another trip to the region by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who next week could make his fifth trip to the Middle East since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza in October.

The White House and CIA have yet to publicly confirm Burns' meeting in France and administration officials have been guarded that a deal can quickly be brokered.

“We should not expect any imminent developments," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday.

Biden and his aides are keenly aware that the mounting Palestinian death toll, and widespread suffering in Gaza, is frustrating some in his Democratic base, who want to see him put more pressure on Israel to end the war. Democrats in Michigan have warned the White House that Biden’s handling of the Gaza conflict could cost him enough support within the state's sizable Arab American community to sway the outcome of the 2024 election in a state that could be key to whether he wins a second term.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced increasing pressure from the families of many captives who are demanding a deal to win their loved one’s release.

Hamas has previously said it will free more captives only in exchange for an end to the war and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

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