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Only ‘minor’ obstacles blocking Israel-Hamas deal on hostages: Qatar PM

The deal to release hostages kidnapped by Hamas during its terrorist attack on Israel now only depends on “minor” practical issues, the Qatari prime minister said on Sunday in Doha. 

His comments came after the White House denied that an agreement had been reached, following a report by the Washington Post that Hamas was close to agreeing to free 50 hostages in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting from Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also denied that a deal had been reached.

“The challenges facing the agreement are just practical and logistical,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told a press conference in Doha, alongside the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell. 

Negotiations toward an agreement have seen “ups and downs from time to time throughout the last few weeks,” he said. “I’m now more confident that we are close enough to reach a deal that can bring the people safely back to their home,” he added.

The Biden administration said Washington was working “hard” to get a deal between Israel and Hamas. “We have not reached a deal yet, but we continue to work hard to get to a deal,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson posted on social media.

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer said on Sunday that “many areas of difference” have been “narrowed.”

“We are closer than we have been to reaching a final agreement,” Finer said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But “on an issue as sensitive as this, as challenging as this, the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed really does apply,” he said.

Israel’s Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he will not agree to a cease-fire until all the hostages have been released.

The families of the hostages are on tenterhooks and with each news report suggesting negotiators are inching toward a deal, their hopes spiking only to be dashed, prompting despair and rising anger. Many criticize the International Red Cross and other international bodies, arguing that they have not been doing enough to try to secure release or access to the hostages.

‘One of the missions’

Shai Wenkert, whose 22-year-old son, Omer, was in southern Israel on October 7 for the Nova music festival, says he is living a nightmare. He finally knew his son had been captured when he saw harrowing images posted by Hamas of his son handcuffed and being beaten.

He was dissatisfied with his meeting with a Red Cross official. “He told me that in case of war, they can’t go inside because they can’t risk any of their people. I asked a series of questions and got no answers,” he said. Wenkert met Netanyahu as part of a delegation a week after the war began and was promised freeing the hostages was “one of the missions” of the military campaign.

“We wanted to get answers about what they’re doing about my son and all the hostages. They promised us that this is one of the goals of the war. But we need this to be the first goal to get the hostages back.” Like most hostage relatives, Wenkert isn’t calling for a halt to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. “I’m not a military guy; I’m not a politician. And I think they are doing the best they can. If the hostages get released because of the military campaign or because of diplomacy, it doesn’t matter to me. We just need them back. We need them back now. It’s been too long for us,” he told POLITICO.

Qatar, which hosts a Hamas political office and has donated millions of dollars in financial aid to Gaza, was involved in the mediation that led to the release of four hostages in October, including an American woman and her daughter, and two Israeli women.

“I appreciate a lot the constructive role Qatar is playing … in fostering peace and stability,” Borrell said at the press conference, praising Qatar’s approach as “a key mediator.”

The families of the hostages are getting ever more impatient and desperate, according to David Meidan, a former Mossad intelligence officer, who served for a time as Netanyahu’s coordinator on hostage issues. He’s been counseling nearly a hundred of the hostage families.

He said most of them are holding off calling for a cease-fire, leaving it to the government to determine the best ways of getting their relatives back. Most say Netanyahu should release all and any Palestinians held in Israeli jails that Hamas demands. “They are going through a rollercoaster of emotions and can say different things from day to day — you have to remember there are many relatives involved and they don’t all agree,” Meidan said in a recent interview with POLITICO.

If the hostage families as a group begin to call for a cease-fire, it could shift domestic Israeli politics dramatically, presenting Netanyahu with an explosive political moment, say opposition politicians, including Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party. He’s not sure that Israel will be faced with such a stark choice. But told POLTICO the priority would be the hostages and to “get them home.” He added: “We will have our chance to kill whoever we need to kill afterwards.”

‘The bare minimum’

Yoni Asher, whose wife and two young daughters, aged 5 and 3, were captured, says every day is hard and he tries not to follow the news or social media the whole time. “It’s hard for me to judge or to determine how the military or the government should do their job,” he told POLITICO.

“I’m anxious all the time,” said Asher, a real estate investor. “I told to my family they don’t need to sleep at my house. I’m 37 years old and I don’t need a babysitter, but I am in a severe mental situation. I eat the bare minimum and I sleep the bare minimum. It’s hard for me to do regular day-to-day things.” He learned of their abduction after seeing a video online in which his wife and daughters were visible in the back of a truck surrounded by Hamas gunmen.

Aside from worrying about their physical safety, he stresses out about what their mental condition will be when they get out. “As each day passes, they can be damaged physically and mentally. I’m willing at any moment to go to the border and be exchanged for them. I have no time; I have no patience. If I could go and be traded for them right now, I would go and then I could rest in peace knowing my family are at home, even if without me, and at least they would not be in this hell,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference Saturday, Netanyahu acknowledged the suffering the hostage families are enduring. He had seen their rallies and marches urging the government to do more to get their relatives released. “I would like to tell the hostages’ families: We are marching with you. I am marching with you. The entire people of Israel are marching with you. Your loved ones are in our hearts and before our eyes constantly,” he said.

The Israeli leader added: “Concerning the hostages, there are many unsubstantiated rumors, many incorrect reports. I would like to make it clear: As of now, there has been no deal. But I want to promise: When there is something to say — we will report to you about it.”

A split in the Netanyahu’s war cabinet about the best hostage strategy to pursue is emerging, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Sunday. Some ministers, including Benny Gantz, a retired general and leader of the National Unity Party, believes a temporary cease-fire should be agreed in order to secure the release of as many hostages as possible.

But Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as military and security chiefs, is fearful any pause would undermine military momentum, arguing that pressure should be intensified on Hamas to extract more concessions, the newspaper said.

Jamie Dettmer reported from Tel Aviv.

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