The Daily Telegraph
Israel on brink of hostage agreement
White House optimistic as release deal would lead to five-day pause in fighting
A DEAL to halt fighting in Gaza in return for the release of up to 50 hostages is expected in the coming days, Israel said last night.
US officials said the negotiations had entered a “sensitive” phase after the prime minister of Qatar, where talks are being held, said only “minor details” remained to be resolved.
Under a Us-brokered deal between Israel and Hamas, “dozens of women and children” would be released “in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting”, draft agreement documents were reported to state.
The possible breakthrough comes as the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) signed off plans to extend the offensive within Gaza, ahead of a widely anticipated push south.
The southern advance is seen as a pivotal moment, not just for civilians trapped in the territory but also Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to maintain diplomatic support in the face of growing calls for a ceasefire and more aid.
Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, told American media yesterday: “I’m hopeful we can have a deal in the coming days.”
Amid growing optimism, Jonathan Finer, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, said he believed the majority of hostages were alive and that “significant progress” in negotiations had been achieved.
When asked if the number of hostages included in a potential deal amounted to “12, more than two dozen [or] dozens”, he replied: “We’re talking about considerably more than 12.”
Mr Herzog told ABC’S This Week that Israel ruled out a full ceasefire but suggested there could be a pause in the fighting “so we can get the hostages out”.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrah- man al-thani, a Qatari diplomat, said yesterday that the main challenges were “practical and logistical” but he was confident “we are close enough to reach a deal”. He added: “The challenges that remain in the negotiations are very minor.”
Mr Netanyahu, whose popularity has been damaged by the Oct 7 massacre, is under significant political pressure to prioritise returning the hostages over defeating Hamas. However, he urged caution, stressing early yesterday that a deal had not been struck.
The flurry of negotiations came amid further violence in the Middle East, after Yemeni Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, seized what they described as an Israeli ship in the Red Sea. Israel denied that it owned the ship or that it contained Israeli crew.
Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued on the ground in Gaza, four days after Israel took control of the Al-shifa hospital, where it had claimed Hamas had built an underground base. Last night the Israeli military released CCTV footage which it claimed showed Hamas bringing hostages to the hospital on Oct 7 and parking vehicles used in the terror attack. The IDF said a captive soldier had been executed and two foreign hostages were being held at the site. Approximately 240 hostages were abducted by Hamas during its attack on Oct 7.
Earlier in the day, at least 30 premature babies were evacuated from the hospital by the World Health Organisation, which described the building as a “death zone”.
IDF operations appeared largely to focus on efforts to expose the Hamas terror network in and around Gaza City, to the north of the strip. However, the military was heavily criticised by António Guterres, the UN secretarygeneral, following reported attacks on two UN schools housing civilians.
ISRAEL has released footage it claims shows bloodied hostages being strongarmed into the Al-shifa hospital grounds on the day of the Oct 7 massacre.
In an effort to prove definitively Hamas’s use of the complex, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) held a press conference in which its spokesman pointed to footage of two abductees, one with a bloodied arm, being led into the hospital.
They also showed images of an IDF Jeep taken from Israel during the rampage earlier that morning and a white pickup truck of the type used by the terrorists in the attacks.
They had earlier released what they said were details of a “55-metre-long” tunnel, 10 metres beneath the grounds.
Rear-adml Daniel Hagari, the IDF spokesman, said: “By now the truth is clear – Hamas is waging terror from hospitals.”
It came as at least 30 premature babies were evacuated from the hospital yesterday, after the World Health Organisation described it as a “death zone”. The infants, many of whom have reportedly lost their parents, were removed ahead of a transfer to specialist care in Egypt, the Hamas-controlled health ministry said.
The plight of newborns in a hospital with barely any functioning equipment had become the subject of acute concern following the IDF’S circling of and subsequent entry into the facility last week, which it says is to root out terrorist infrastructure on the site.
The babies were among 291 patients still there on Saturday, according to the WHO, many of whom were in a critical state with spinal injuries, infected wounds and other conditions.
Mark Regev, senior adviser to Israel’s prime minister, said yesterday that IDF troops had found a “command and control room on the minus 2 floor” of the hospital.
The IDF said soldiers had “exposed a 55-metre-long terror tunnel”, 10 metres beneath the Al-shifa hospital complex, including a blast-proof door and a firing hole.
During last night’s briefing, Rearadml Hagari said time-stamped video from 10.50am on Oct 7 shows Hamas pulling up at the hospital and using it to drop off hostages. At 10.55am, Hagari said, Hamas can be seen taking a hostage inside the hospital.
Mr Hagari said the same hostage can be seen a few minutes earlier entering the main entrance to the hospital accompanied by gunmen.
Also at 10.55am, the terrorists enter the hospital with another hostage, Mr Hagari said. “The gunmen are guarding the room. We have not yet located both of these hostages and rescued them. We do not know where they are.”
He also accused Hamas of murdering 19-year-old Corporal Noa Marciano, who was abducted on Oct 7, in the Al-shifa hospital grounds.
Neither Hagari’s claims about Marciano nor the alleged hospital footage has been independently verified.
The government has claimed Hamas used the site as the “beating heart” of its operations. But the US says its intelligence suggests the presence of a command and control “node”.
It came as the IDF’S chief of staff approved plans to continue the ground offensive in the beleaguered enclave, ahead of a widely expected push south.
The military said its operations around the Rimal area of Gaza city, in the north of the strip, had found a base used by Hamas’s intelligence, as well as the residences of senior Hamas officials.
Sixty-three Israeli soldiers are now confirmed to have been killed in the fighting, including Binyamin Meir Airley, whose British father Rob Airley described him as a “leader” who “personified modesty”.
He said the 21-year-old paratrooper had entered a house that had already been attacked by an Israeli tank, incorrectly thinking the Hamas terrorists inside had been killed. The fighting took place amid growing international hope for a deal to secure the release of a significant number of the 240 hostages seized during the Oct 7 massacre.
Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, told journalists on Sunday that his government was hopeful a breakthrough could be reached “within days”.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer said the White House believed the “vast majorpogrom ity” of the hostages were “most likely” alive, while the prime minister of Qatar, which is hosting the negotiations, suggested that only “minor details”, stood in the way of a deal.
In the same interview, Mr Finer suggested that a temporary cessation of fighting could allow the way for better humanitarian aid to Gaza, a possibility that will be seized on by the UN and other aid bodies, who continued to excoriate the IDF for its treatment of Palestinian civilians.
Commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) says the number of facilities hit and civilians killed cannot just be “collateral damage”.
The IDF says it endeavours to avoid civilian casualties, although last week Mr Netanyahu said Israel had been “unsuccessful” in this regard.
A doctor at the Al-amal hospital in Khan Yunis said the facility was now home to 9,000 displaced people.