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Israel and Hamas have agreed a deal for the staggered release of 50 civilians held hostage in Gaza in exchange for some Palestinian prisoners and a four-day halt to hostilities.
The pause, which will mark the most prolonged lull in the conflict since the Palestinian militant group’s deadly October 7 attack on Israel, is likely to be accompanied by an influx of humanitarian aid — including some fuel — into Gaza.
The hostages in the coastal enclave will be released in small batches, as Israel and Hamas test the durability of the deal. Their release will begin 24 hours after the deal is announced, said a senior Biden administration official, and will happen over four to five days.
Three Americans — of 10 unaccounted for — would be freed in the first phase of the hostage releases, the US official said. Even after the release, Hamas will still hold almost 200 other hostages, including Israeli soldiers and other women and children. The official said they hoped the other women and children would be released subsequently.
The complex negotiations — brokered by Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political leadership, and negotiated with spy chiefs from the US and Israel — mark the largest such swap since the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
That deal involved 52 Americans, including diplomats and CIA officials, released after being held captive in Tehran for more than year.
The deal involving Israel and Hamas took weeks to finalise, with disagreements between the two sides stretching from the details to the logistics and the final concessions Israel would agree to secure the release of the hostages.
Before Israel’s government voted on the deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said US President Joe Biden had intervened to improve its terms. “[The deal] has been improved to include more hostages and at a lower cost,” he said.
Hamas’s initial demand was for a 10-day pause to hostilities, which was rejected, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. It then asked for five days, while Israel insisted on a shorter pause.
The person briefed on the discussions said other points of contention involved the logistics of the exchange, including the sequence in which people would be released, whether Israel could use drones to monitor the process, the number of Palestinian prisoners freed, and where they could go once they were out of jail.
If the swap succeeds, negotiators hope it would be the first of several involving the release of more Israeli civilians and foreign nationals in exchange for an extension to the pause in hostilities, the person added.
The person expressed the hope that Hamas would use the pause to gather civilian hostages not under its control in Gaza — some are believed to be held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant faction, and criminal gangs in the enclave.
Hamas has said it intends to hold on to the Israeli soldiers it captured on October 7 in the hope of trading them for high-ranking Palestinians, some of them militants, in Israeli prisons.
More than 2mn Palestinians are living in dire conditions after being driven into southern Gaza by Israel’s military offensive, which was prompted by Hamas’s assault more than six weeks ago.
Israel has laid siege to the enclave since mounting its air and land offensive, allowing only limited amounts of aid into Gaza.
Four of the roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas in the enclave had already been released, and the deaths of two others have been confirmed. One, a soldier, was rescued.
The plight of the hostages has exacerbated the trauma of Israelis over the events of October 7 and become a politically sensitive issue for Netanyahu.
Families of the captives have pressured his government to do more to secure their freedom even as Israel has pressed ahead with its offensive.
Israel, backed by the Biden administration, has resisted mounting international calls for a ceasefire, insisting that any pause in the fighting would only come after Hamas agrees to free a large number of captives.
Brett McGurk, White House Middle East adviser, told a conference in Bahrain over the weekend that a pause in Israel’s assault and a surge in humanitarian relief into Gaza “will come when hostages are released”.
Hamas killed about 1,200 people in its October 7 attack, according to Israeli officials.
Close to 13,000 people have been killed by the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials, while the UN has warned of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the strip.
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