The pressure for hostage deal as high as the landing strip is narrow

The negotiators who are shuttling draft proposals have set achieving an agreement by Ramadan as their goal


Protesters hold placards with the picture of 26-year-old Gali and Ziv Berman (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

February 07, 2024 14:53

Will the war that began on Simchat Torah end on the first day of Ramadan?

The holy month of the Muslim calendar is still four weeks away but the date – expected to be sundown on March 9, though it is subject to the sighting of a new moon – has become a milestone for all sides involved in the talks over a possible hostage agreement and ceasefire in Gaza.

The American, Egyptian and Qatari negotiators who are shuttling draft proposals have set achieving an agreement by Ramadan as their goal. The IDF and other parts of Israel’s security establishment would prefer to have two or three more weeks in which to wrap up the ongoing operation in and around Khan Younis, but, following that, would be satisfied with a truce lasting a month or more –especially if it meant a significant number of hostages coming home. In that time, troops who have been in fighting since October 7 could be regrouped and refreshed. There is also concern over the situation in Gaza during Ramadan, often a period of tension, causing an outbreak of violence in and around the Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Hamas-watchers in the intelligence community are also detecting more than a whiff of Ramadan-related anxiety from within the Hamas leadership. Having brought down four months of death and destruction on Gaza in their attack on Israel, there is a demand for a period of respite during Ramadan. Hamas need to prove they can supply that as well.

The movement is also coming under pressure from the families of Palestinian prisoners. Having gone to such lengths and caused so much suffering to capture Israeli hostages, Hamas needs to prove to them now that it was worth it.

But despite the deadline in four weeks and the breathless headlines coming out with every twist and turn of the negotiations, the expectations of an imminent deal are inflated. Just for some proportion, it took Israel and Hamas over five years to reach an agreement on the Shalit deal, which involved one sole Israeli soldier. This time, the situation is far more complex, with 136 hostages still being held, a war ongoing in Gaza and the terrible trauma of October 7 still looming over Israeli society.

One veteran negotiator remarked this week that even if the parameters of a deal are agreed upon, just the haggling over the long list of names of Palestinian prisoners who could be included in the exchange could take many more weeks.

In the past, the main categories of prisoners were divided by the question of whether they had “blood on their hands” or had been convicted on lesser crimes. Now there is a new category: the terrorists who participated in the October 7 massacre. For many Israelis, including those who are in principle in favour of an agreement, releasing those who took part in the murder, rape and pillage of Israel’s darkest day would be too much to stomach. And then there is another wrinkle on the Israeli side. The whole event has already been politicised.​

In the two previous instances when Israel released over 1,000 Palestinians prisoners in a deal with a terror organisation – the Jibril deal (in 1985, when 1,151 prisoners were released in exchange for three IDF soldiers being held by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the Shalit deal (in 2011, when 1,027 prisoners were released for Gilad Shalit being held by Hamas) – there was broad public and political consensus in favour, at least when the deal was taking place. In 1985, only one minister voted against the deal in cabinet. In 2011, just three. But just about everything in Israel is now polarised and the views on a potential hostage agreement now are very much dependent on political positions.

In cabinet, the centrist wing led by Benny Gantz has already made it clear that Israel needs to prioritise the release of the hostages above other considerations, while the far-right parties Religious Zionism and Jewish Power have said that any agreement for a long pause in the war would be a “red line” for them. And in the cabinet centre ground, Likud has yet to take a position as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be holding both positions at once.

In private, Netanyahu has given his backing to the negotiations in full knowledge that any agreement with Hamas will at the very least mean a Ramadan-long truce. In public, he has been promising in every public appearance and statement that “we’re continuing until total victory”, even though no-one knows what “total victory” is supposed to mean. Meanwhile the pundits on the slavishly pro-Netanyahu Channel 14 have in recent days started speaking openly of the need to “put the interests of the entire country first” – or, in other words, put the interests of the hostages last.

To make things even more complicated, there’s increasing talk of Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition, agreeing to prop up the Netanyahu government if the far right abandons the coalition over the terms of a hostage agreement. As usual, Netanyahu is trying to keep his options open for as long as possible.

The hostages however may not have the time. Reports this week in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that in addition to the 31 hostages which the IDF has already announced are presumed dead, there is information that as many as 20 more could be dead as well, came as no surprise to the Israeli media which observes strict rules on such matters.

Even if the intelligence indicates that an Israeli hostage is dead – and some of them were, without a doubt, killed on October 7 and Hamas simply snatched their bodies – no official announcement will be issued unless a team of senior physicians concurs on the basis of forensic and photographic evidence.

They’ve analysed every shred of physical remains found in the devastated kibbutzim, on the site of the Supernova Festival and from the border and the tunnels and pored over thousand of hours of mobile-camera footage. Now the only thing that can liberate the families from their agony of not knowing their loved ones’ fate is an agreement.

February 07, 2024 14:53

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