The United Stated, Qatari, Israeli and Egyptian officials are meeting in France to discuss a potential new deal to free Israeli hostages in Gaza in exchange for a pause in fighting, the Guardian reports.
The Associated Press reported that US negotiators, including CIA Director Bill Burns, provided a framework for talks focused on a two-month pause in fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas.
US officials have reportedly proposed an initial 30-day temporary ceasefire while the remaining women, elderly and wounded Israeli hostages are freed. This would be followed by a second 30-day pause in which Israeli soldiers and male hostages would be released, and an increased flow of humanitarian aid would be allowed into Gaza.
A halt in fighting, they hope, could provide an additional opportunity to negotiate a more permanent, long-term ceasefire.
During talks in Doha in recent weeks, Hamas has repeatedly refused to accept any deal that does not include a permanent ceasefire, according to reports. Israel recently offered a two-month pause in fighting in exchange for hostages, but without guaranteeing a permanent end to the war.
Cairo had previously proposed an ambitious deal of a 10-day ceasefire in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the release of hostages and the withdrawal of Hamas leaders from Gaza. The proposal appeared to have collapsed, replaced by smaller negotiations to allow vital medicine for the hostages to be brought into the enclave in exchange for a small increase in aid for Palestinian civilians.
Burns is expected to meet with the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, David Barney, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel to discuss renewed efforts to free the 136 remaining hostages held by Hamas and other groups in He treads.
A group of officials met in Poland in late December in an attempt to resume talks on the release of the remaining hostages that stalled after the release of 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for 180 Palestinian prisoners and a pause in the fighting. Twenty-three Thai hostages were freed in a separate deal, after Palestinian militant groups took 250 people hostage when the group carried out an unprecedented raid on Israeli territory on October 7, killing around 1,200 people.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza over the past three months has killed more than 26,422 people, according to the latest estimates from the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.
US President Joe Biden sent Brett McGurk, his Middle East envoy, to Cairo and Doha this week in an attempt to encourage further progress in the hostage negotiations.
Biden also spoke Friday night with Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to step up efforts toward a new deal to free Gaza prisoners.
Biden and Sisi agreed that “every effort must now be made to conclude an agreement that would result in the release of all hostages with an extended humanitarian pause in the fighting,” according to a White House statement.
In Biden’s conversation with Thani, the two leaders “underscored the urgency of the situation and welcomed the close cooperation between their teams to advance the recent talks,” it added.
Other White House officials, meanwhile, preached caution.
“We hope for progress, but I don’t expect it — we shouldn’t expect any developments any time soon,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference.
According to the Guardian, the meeting in France comes amid mounting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do more to free those trapped in Gaza, after 20 relatives of the hostages stormed the Israeli parliament this week demanding that work be done to free their loved ones.
Netanyahu also faced criticism after an audio recording surfaced in which he called Qatar’s role in the mediation “problematic.”
Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for Qatar’s foreign ministry, said Doha was “appalled by the alleged remarks attributed to the Israeli prime minister in various media reports about Qatar’s mediating role”.
“These remarks, if confirmed, are irresponsible and destructive to efforts to save innocent lives, but they are not surprising,” he said.
He added that if Netanyahu’s statements as reported are authentic, then he would “only be obstructing and undermining the mediation process, for reasons that appear to serve his political career rather than prioritizing saving innocent lives, including Israeli hostages.”