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    Thursday, July 25, 2024

    Israel, Hamas and U.S. nearing deal on hostage release, senior officials say

    Noa Mittelman, 15, center, and Maya Talby, 15, right, hold up flyers of people kidnapped by Hamas during a rally and march for Israel, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Wash. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
    A protester holds a sign calling for a cease-fire during a Jewish Voice for Peace rally demanding that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, at the Space Needle in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

    Michael Herzog, Israel's ambassador to Washington, said Sunday that he was "hopeful" that a deal will be completed "in the coming days" to free at least some of the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza.

    "We're talking about a pause in the fighting for a few days," Herzog said of the terms of an agreement. "We are willing to go for a pause, for a significant number of hostages, if we have a deal," he told ABC's "This Week."

    U.S. officials have been trying to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas and believe they are close to a deal that would see at least a five-day pause in fighting and allow an initial number of at least 50 women and children captives to be released, people familiar with the ongoing negotiations have said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

    Neither the United States nor Israel speaks directly to Hamas, which has been represented in the discussions by Qatar. In a news conference Sunday in Doha, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said remaining "challenges" in the negotiations "are very minor" and mostly logistical.

    After weeks of "ups and downs" in the negotiations, he said, he was "now more confident that we are close enough to reach a deal that can bring the people safely back to their homes."

    "These talks have clearly reached a very sensitive stage," Jon Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser said Sunday on ABC. "There has been significant progress, including in recent days, in recent hours. Some of the issues ... have now been either narrowed or an understanding has been reached, but it is not complete."

    "Until people actually start moving and start being released, we do not want to get ahead of ourselves because things can still be derailed at the last minute." But based on "representations" from Hamas, he said, the administration believes "that there are a significant number of hostages who could be released if this deal is completed."

    The Washington Post previously reported that negotiators have compiled a six-page document outlining when, where and how the hostages would be safely moved out of Gaza. The deal, which would see combat operations stop temporarily, would also allow a substantial increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance entering the enclave. The hope is that if an initial freezing in place of the combatants and release of women and children goes smoothly, it would establish a template that would allow other groups of captives - including civilian men and Israeli soldiers - to be freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel.

    During the talks in Doha, Hamas has indicated that it does not have control over all of the 239 hostages Israel says were taken captive when militants launched a brutal assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing at least 1,200 people. U.S. officials have said that other militant groups in Gaza, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, apparently took advantage of Hamas's push through Israeli defenses to enter the small communities near the border and take some hostages.

    While the main points of the agreement - a freeze of combat operations for several days to allow the release of women and children and stepped-up deliveries of humanitarian assistance, including fuel - were reached with Hamas last week, Israel has been reluctant until now to agree to anything resembling a cease-fire until it achieves its goal of exterminating Hamas inside Gaza.

    But that position appears now to have changed, with Israel emphasizing that a pause and a cease-fire are two different things. "We are against a cease-fire because that would allow Hamas to retain power, to regroup, to rearm and strike again," Herzog said.

    "We're talking about a pause in the fighting for a few days, so we can get the hostages out," he said.

    Senior administration officials have described the release several weeks ago of an American mother and daughter as a smaller-scale template for the larger movement now envisioned. During that operation, Israel agreed to suspend firing on a specific area inside Gaza for several hours while the International Committee of the Red Cross took custody of the two captives and escorted them across the border to Israel.

    It remains unclear whether the hostages selected for release would include any of the nine American citizens and one U.S. permanent resident, or several dozen other foreign nationals, among the captives.

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