Negotiations to free hostages are quietly underway

Negotiations to free the hostages taken by Hamas and other terror groups to Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack, are intense and ongoing as Qatar continues to mediate deal-making between Israel and Hamas, according to multiple U.S. officials. 

The U.S. is assisting with the complicated hostage diplomacy, and this week President Biden’s top Mideast adviser Brett McGurk is heading to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar with other stops possible. McGurk is part of a small circle involved in the delicate talks, as is National security adviser Jake Sullivan, a U.S. official told CBS News.

“It is the case that there are active negotiations underway between Israel and Qatar, who is communicating with Hamas, and the United States is involved in those discussions, very much involved in those discussions,” Sullivan said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “We are actively working to ensure the safe return of every American being held hostage and every other person being held hostage by Hamas.”

President Biden spoke to Qatari leader Amir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani on Sunday, the White House said. Mr. Biden “expressed his appreciation to Qatar and Sheikh Tamim personally for his earlier efforts to secure the release of hostages from Hamas, including two American citizens, and the urgent ongoing efforts to secure additional releases,” the White House said. Mr. Biden also  “condemned unequivocally the holding of hostages by Hamas, including many young children, one of whom is a 3-year old American citizen toddler, whose parents were killed by Hamas on Oct. 7. The two leaders agreed that all hostages must be released without further delay.” 

Protest calling for the immediate release of hostages held in Gaza
People carry placards during a protest calling for the immediate release of hostages held in Gaza who were seized from southern Israel on October 7 by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas gunmen during a deadly attack, at a square in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 11, 2023.


Two U.S. officials told CBS that one of the main sticking points to the active negotiations is that Hamas has not to date presented a list of hostages it holds or would be able to free as part of a deal. Other terror groups, like Islamic Jihad, also took hostages, including children. 

Israel wants that accounting in hand as it continues to determine just how many people were abducted to Gaza during the Oct. 7 attack. This past week, the Israeli Foreign Ministry revised down its official figure of those who were killed from 1,400 to 1,200.

Hamas has released only four of the hostages seized on October 7, including two elderly women and a mother and daughter. A message posted to a Hamas-affiliated Telegram channel said the release was made for “humanitarian reasons.”

On “Face the Nation,” Sullivan declined to comment on published reports that Israel would now consider Hamas’ longstanding request to release Palestinian women and teenagers from detention in Israel and swap them for some of the roughly 240 hostages believed to be held by Hamas.

A senior U.S. official told CBS that there is no such deal at present though such a provision could ultimately be part of a yet as unnegotiated final deal.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog said on “Face the Nation” that he could not confirm the reports.

“I can’t confirm it but I can say it has nothing to do with these criminals, these murderers that are deep in Israeli jails for many, many years,” Herzog said to distinguish the Palestinian civilians held in Israeli prisons from hardened terrorists.

Israeli Human rights group B’Tselem reports that Israel routinely uses its system of administrative detention to hold people without charge or trial and allows authorities to detain people on suspicion of planning to break the law. Some Palestinians, including minors, are held for years on end. 

Herzog confirmed Sullivan’s report that Qatar and Egypt are trying to mediate talks to secure the hostages’ release, along with the U.S., who is “heavily involved.”

To date, the focus of U.S. and Qatari diplomats has been on civilian hostages, particularly children and elderly captives. There are also Israeli military service people who are believed to have been taken captive but present a more complicated set of issues.

Speaking from Tel Aviv, House Foreign Affairs committee chair Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, indicated that during his visit on Sunday with Israeli leaders, he was informed of very sensitive negotiations with the Qataris. Those negotiations, he indicated, included that Hamas wants a prisoner swap. The U.S. believes that to conduct any kind of future hostage release, it would require a lengthy cessation of violence to allow for the hostages to move to safety.

“A ceasefire will be very difficult without an agreement to release all hostages,” McCaul said. “But it is under intense negotiation right now.”

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