After lengthy negotiations, a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that includes the release of hostages was approved by both warring sides early Wednesday. The announcement was made by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar, the main mediator of the agreement.
Also part of the negotiations were the United States and Egypt.
The Israeli government approved the deal—which would see the release of approximately 50 Israeli children and women—after an extended cabinet meeting. In return for the 50 hostages, Israel will release 150 Palestinian prisoners and stop its offensive on the Gaza Strip for four days. During this period, the hostages will be released gradually.
The deal is to begin implementation on Thursday. It will also include an increase in humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
The gradual nature of the agreement and the elusive character of Hamas make the deal a highly sensitive one that could easily be derailed and unfulfilled.
“Any argument against the deal is valid,” Dr. Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line. While Milstein believes the deal is necessary, he cautions that “Hamas is going to use the cease-fire to prepare itself for the next phase of the war.”
Hamas is not the only one holding hostages. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has admitted to holding some Israelis, and other Gaza warlords are believed to be keeping others in hiding.
“Not all of these elements are under Hamas control. Any small incident could spiral into a big explosion,” said Milstein. “[Also], Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is not to be trusted. At any given moment, he can renege and decide to operate against the Israeli military.”
The families of those hostages set to be released are now poised for tension-filled days, holding their breath until they see their loved ones. The order of the release of the hostages is unknown, making the coming days almost impossible to bear.
Seven weeks into the fighting, there are also concerns that the lull could pose a grave danger for Israeli soldiers in Gaza. The forces are expected to remain inside the territory, putting them at risk, neck-to-neck with Hamas terrorists. But Israel has decided to take the risk.
“The government of Israel is committed to bringing all of the hostages home. Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal,” read a statement by the Office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, released after the approval of the deal.
The Netanyahu government has been under intense pressure from the public to secure the release of the hostages. Three ministers voted against the deal, led by extreme right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who said it was a “dangerous outline that changes the equation.” Ben Gvir raised concerns that the deal would encourage more abductions.
According to Dr. Omer Zanany, Lt. Cl. (Res.), director of the Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking Program at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and head of the “Day After” Program of Mitvim and the Berl Katznelson Center, there are tactical risks that Israel took into consideration before agreeing to the deal.
“There is no question that the hostage issue is unparalleled to any other strategic issue on the agenda,” Zanany told The Media Line. “The cost of the pause and the ability of Hamas to regroup is one that is tolerable in order to achieve the main goal of releasing them.”
Israel has experience in botched cease-fires and lopsided prisoner deals. Hamas still holds the body of an Israeli officer whom it killed in a 2014 war, during a cease-fire between the sides.
Until today, Israelis are divided about the deal that brought the release of one Israeli soldier in 2011 in return for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Not only was the price deemed too high by many, but also the identity of those released was controversial. Many of the prisoners were murderers who had killed Israelis.
Moreover, one of the released murderers came to be Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. Sinwar is believed to be the mastermind behind the surprise and murderous offensive that started the current war. He is also the one Israel negotiated with, albeit indirectly, on the current deal.
Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have not ruled out the assassination of Sinwar. Senior military officers have said they are searching for him “round the clock” as troops scour Gaza.
The current deal is only a partial one that is intended to release 50 or so of the 240 people abducted as part of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
“The hostages are Hamas’ and Sinwar’s insurance policy,” said Zanany. “As long as we are in some kind of a journey to release all of the hostages, any thoughts of assassination are in question. Whoever says there is no connection between the military operation and hostage release deals is lying. There is a price to pay for the release of hostages, but there is no other choice.”
By approving the current deal, which could be the first in a series of deals to release the hostages, Israel has perhaps forfeited its goal of destroying Hamas—a goal that Netanyahu has repeatedly promised the Israeli public he will deliver.
“We are at war, and we will continue the war,” Netanyahu said just before the approval of the deal. “We will continue until we achieve all our goals.”
Israel holds approximately 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in its jails. On Wednesday morning, the Justice Ministry released the names of those eligible for release as part of the deal. Most of them are males aged 18 and under, being held for rioting or rock-throwing. There are also several adult women, convicted of attempted stabbings of Israelis. Few are from the Gaza Strip.
In the statement released by the Israeli government regarding the terms of the deal, it added that the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas.
A longer pause in the fighting could lead to pressure on Israel to end its war without achieving its goal of toppling Hamas.
“Israel’s motive will remain after this deal, and there will still be hostages to release,” said Zanany. “However, Israel could lose momentum. It also depends on whether Hamas will continue firing rockets into Israel.”
Since the beginning of the fighting, Hamas has continued to fire rockets towards Israel. However, once Israel began its ground invasion over three weeks ago, the number of rockets fired into Israel has been reduced drastically.
“The army will know how to maintain its operational achievements,” said Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari when asked about the cease-fire.
As part of the deal, Israel has also agreed to daily pauses in drone surveillance over the Gaza Strip.
“This is one of Hamas’ greatest achievements,” Milstein said. “This will give it enough time to rearm, mobilize rockets, and reposition Hamas forces in Gaza City, where Israel has not gained full control of yet.”
Israel has focused most of its military activity in the northern Gaza Strip, directing the Palestinian civilian population to the south of the territory. The army has said the next phase of the fighting will focus on Gaza’s southern area. This will be an especially tricky phase, given the large number of displaced civilians there along with Hamas senior leadership believed to be in hiding there.
“Southern Gaza and the continuation of cleansing Gaza of Hamas are the next steps for Israel,” said Zanany. “Everyone in Israel agrees that there is still need to fight and realize the military goals.”
There are many stumbling blocks to be surpassed in the sensitive deal reached between Hamas and Israel.
“As long as Hamas feels like the agreement is beneficial to the rehabilitation of its military activities, the cease-fire will continue and the hostage releases will progress,” said Milstein. “This is the only criterion.”
With so many things that could go wrong, the region and its people are holding their breath.
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