Days before Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza, it was closing in on a deal for Hamas to release up to 50 hostages in exchange for pausing the bombardment unleashed in response to the militants’ Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, according to Arab and Western officials with knowledge of the talks.
But once Israel’s ground assault on Gaza got underway on Oct. 27, the negotiations came to an abrupt halt, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. The talks resumed days later and are still underway.
Israel had delayed its ground attack to give some time for the hostage negotiations to be completed, according to two of the officials. But as the talks stalled, it decided to go forward, reckoning that Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules Gaza, would bow to military pressure.
“There will be no pause without the return of hostages and missing persons,” Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said in a written statement to The New York Times this week. “The only way of saving the hostages is if Israel continues its ground operation.”
On Oct. 7, Palestinian attackers penetrated towns and military bases in southern Israel and killed roughly 1,400 people. They also took about 240 captives back to Gaza, including civilians and Israeli soldiers.
Hamas leaders have since claimed that their group does not have control over all of those captives because other Gaza factions, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, also entered Israel that day and took some hostages of their own.
So far, the negotiations have only focused on releasing civilian hostages, according to these officials. The Israeli soldiers held in Gaza may eventually be part of a separate track of negotiations, possibly to be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian women and minors who are held without charge in Israeli prisons.
The deal was being worked out in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, which has hosted the Hamas political leadership in exile for years. The United States and Israel have long used Qatar as an intermediary to get messages to Hamas and to coordinate aid efforts in Gaza.
The Qatari capital, Doha, is now the focal point of both the hostage negotiations and separate talks on getting aid into Gaza. Over the last week, Hamas has added a new condition for releasing civilian hostages — the delivery of fuel to collapsing hospitals across the Gaza Strip.
Israel has prevented fuel deliveries into Gaza, claiming that Hamas uses it for its rocket attacks and that it has stockpiled fuel meant for civilians. But aid organizations have said that fuel is one of the biggest needs in Gaza, to keep everything from hospitals to bakeries running.