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Israel considering deal for Hamas to release all civilian hostages in Gaza Strip, officials say

Reporters take cover upon hearing sirens warning of an incoming rocket attack from Gaza, in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on Oct. 23 amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.  (Jack Guez/AFP)
By Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong New York Times

Hamas and Israel are negotiating two hostage release proposals, one involving a small number of people and one that could involve 100 or more civilians being held in the Gaza Strip, according to officials briefed on the talks.

Hamas and other Palestinian groups are holding around 240 people hostage in Gaza, according to Israeli officials and others briefed on the talks. A little less than half of them are civilians, and the larger deal being negotiated would involve the release of all of those, one official said.

Under one proposal being discussed, Hamas would release 10 to 20 civilian hostages – Israeli women and children as well as foreigners, including Americans – in exchange for a brief pause in hostilities, one official briefed on the talks said. That could be followed by a larger release of about 100 civilians if terms are met.

In exchange for releasing all the civilians, Hamas is asking for a brief pause, more humanitarian aid, fuel for hospitals and the release of women and children in Israeli prisons, the official said, adding that Israeli authorities had expressed uncertainty about releasing their prisoners. Qatar, which hosts political offices of Hamas, has been the main mediator in the talks, and senior United States officials are also involved.

U.S. officials have broadly endorsed the notion of Israel pausing its attacks in Gaza for a hostage release, saying this would allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and the hostages to leave. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference in New Delhi, “We’ll continue to focus relentlessly on getting our hostages home.”

Hamas has refused to release any of the military-age Israeli men it is holding in Gaza, according to the officials.

One official said a complicating factor was that Hamas had told Qatari negotiators that it held 20 or fewer civilians, and that the others were being held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad or other groups or individuals in Gaza who are not part of the Hamas command structure. The official said the governments involved in the talks had not independently verified this claim.

In recent weeks, some Hamas officials have tried to argue that the group’s fighters raided only military outposts in Israel on Oct. 7, when armed men killed about 1,400 Israelis and took about 240 people hostage. But videos and other evidence show that Hamas also attacked civilians in their homes.

Hamas officials are telling negotiators that they have all or almost all of the Israeli military personnel who were captured, numbering 130 to 140, but have no intention of releasing them soon, an official said.

Israeli officials have not released any breakdowns of military versus civilian hostages.

Hamas released a small number of hostages in two rounds last month – one of an American mother and her daughter who also have Israeli citizenship, and another of two elderly Israeli women. One earlier proposal for them to release about 50 hostages did not result in a deal.

William Burns, the CIA director, and David Barnea, the chief of Israel’s Mossad, were in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday for talks on the hostages. While U.S. officials have not met with Hamas directly, Qatari officials have been negotiating with them on the proposed hostage release.

U.S. and Israeli officials are deeply skeptical of various Hamas claims about the hostages in Gaza, including the group’s assertions that they do not hold many of the civilian captives, according to officials briefed on the talks.

Among the foreign hostages are 23 Thai citizens who were working on kibbutzim in southern Israel. Hamas fighters and possibly other armed men killed 32 Thai workers on Oct. 7.

The current proposal for the release of about 100 civilians was reported by a Washington Post columnist. Offers to release larger numbers of hostages have been floated before.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.