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A woman holds portraits of hostages Erez Kalderon, 12, and of children of the Goldstein Almog family as protesters rally outside the Unicef offices in Tel Aviv on November 20, 2023 to demand the release of Israelis held hostage in Gaza.
Israel, Hamas and the US are on the cusp of reaching a deal that could be announced as soon as Tuesday for Hamas to release 50 women and children hostages that the militant group took during the October 7 terror attack on Israel, in exchange for a four-to-five day pause in fighting and three Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons for every hostage released, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
The deal could be announced as soon as Tuesday, two Israeli sources said. US officials close to the negotiations stressed that while the deal is not done, they are increasingly optimistic and believe the many weeks of difficult work is about to pay off with a hostage release.
“It’s very close,” a senior US official told CNN.
Israel’s war cabinet met Tuesday evening local time, followed by a meeting of the security cabinet. A full cabinet meeting will take place after the security cabinet meeting ends, according to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We are making progress. I don’t think it’s worth saying more, even at this moment, but I hope there will be good news soon,” Netanyahu said as he met with reservists on Tuesday.
An agreement would prompt the first sustained pause in fighting and major de-escalatory step from Israel since the war began.
The hostages to be released are of various nationalities, according to the person familiar, who said the Americans are hoping one of them will be 3-year-old toddler Abigail Edan – the youngest American hostage – whose parents were killed by Hamas. It was not immediately clear how many more – if any – American citizens would be among the 50 hostages that Hamas would initially release under the deal.
The hostages that Hamas offered for initial release are alive, the group says, according to a source familiar with the talks.
The Israeli government aims for at least 50 hostages to be released as part of the deal being mooted Tuesday – 10 per day for five days – an Israeli government source told CNN. The government would be prepared to extend the deal if Hamas is prepared to release more hostages.
Hamas had initially demanded that Israel’s overhead surveillance be stopped for the duration of the multi-day pause in fighting, sources told CNN. During the course of the negotiations, the parties settled on surveillance drones vacating Gaza’s airspace for part of each day. That six-hour window is when Hamas would be expected to try to move the hostages out without giving up their locations.
Under the forthcoming agreement, Hamas would also gather up any additional women and children hostages during the period that fighting has paused – something the group has insisted that it cannot do until a sustained ceasefire is in place. The temporary ceasefire would potentially be extended beyond that for more hostages to be released.
Hamas has also demanded hundreds of trucks of aid, much of it fuel, as part of the negotiations. Fuel is key to running its military operations and ventilating the group’s network of underground tunnels in Gaza.
A source familiar with the negotiations said there is hope that with a hostage deal significantly more aid will be allowed into Gaza, with stakeholders working toward a goal of 400 trucks a day.
The deal would come after weeks of painstaking negotiations between Israel, Hamas and the US, with Qatar playing a major mediating role. The implementation of the agreement would not begin immediately and could take at least a day to start, the person familiar said, in part because there are legal procedures that Israel must follow before releasing any Palestinian prisoners. Those prisoners are expected to be women and adolescents.
The release of the prisoners needs to be approved by the Israeli government but isn’t expected to be an obstacle, one source said. As cabinet officials met inside the Israeli Defense building to discuss the deal, families of the hostages gathered outside with banners and drums.
But two far-right Israeli parties, which are members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, did later suggest that they would not support the hostage deal being considered by the government.
The Religious Zionism party, headed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, said: “The suggested deal is bad and we must not agree to it. It’s bad for Israel’s security, for the hostages and for IDF soldiers,” adding, “The only way to return all the hostages is to continue applying military pressure on Hamas until its complete surrender.” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party also said it would “find it very difficult to support the deal.”
Both parties’ statement suggested they had not yet seen the full terms of the deal.
Diplomatic sources and government officials, including US President Joe Biden, over the last few days have struck a more optimistic tone about the progress of talks. But the various parties involved had also stressed that any agreement could be derailed by Hamas and developments on the ground in Gaza.
On Monday night, Hamas’ leader said in a statement that the sides are “close to reaching a truce agreement.”
The latest momentum comes just one day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the war cabinet met with hostage families.
Israel has said there are more than 200 hostages believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza. After the women and children are released, further negotiations to secure the release of other categories of hostages are likely to commence.
Senior US officials have been working intensively to secure the release of hostages for several weeks, with the understanding that a handful of American hostages were taken hostage by Hamas. Biden has spoken directly with Netanyahu, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi about the issue.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday that Biden has been “personally engaged in moving the process forward” and has been receiving updates from the US team involved in the negotiations “usually multiple times a day and jumping in as he felt appropriate to jump in personally.”
Top Biden officials including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and CIA Director Bill Burns have been engaged “almost hourly” on the efforts to get the hostages out of Gaza, sources said. McGurk most recently traveled to the Middle East for a multi-country trip aimed in large part at making progress on releasing the hostages.
This is a developing story and will be updated.