Hostage deal deadlocked over Israel’s refusal to agree permanent ceasefire

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Qatari-mediated talks to broker a deal for the release of the remaining hostages held in Gaza have become deadlocked over Israel’s refusal to agree to a permanent ceasefire.

The latest Qatari proposal included a pause in hostilities in Gaza for about a month, during which Hamas would release the remaining hostages in exchange for Israel freeing Palestinian prisoners over three phases, said two people briefed on the negotiations.

But the talks have stalled over Israel’s refusal to use a new deal to work towards a permanent ceasefire — which Hamas insists would have to be part of any agreement, the people said.

Qatar has been working with Egypt and the US on the multiphase initiative in the hope they could use a temporary truce to negotiate a permanent ceasefire, the people briefed on the talks said. Brett McGurk, the White House’s Middle East adviser, visited both Egypt and Qatar this week to discuss the Israel-Hamas war.

“Israel rejected . . . the ceasefire at the end. That was the Israelis’ last feedback to Qatar,” said a person briefed on the talks. “Hamas said everything else is fine, but there has to be a permanent ceasefire at the end. Now the mediators are working on the Israelis to convince them to accept a permanent ceasefire, including the Americans.”

The heads of the CIA and Mossad intelligence agencies are expected to meet Qatar’s prime minister over the weekend in an effort to break the deadlock, a person briefed on the talks said.

The ratio of prisoners released for hostages under the proposal would be similar to an original deal in November, when three Palestinian prisoners were released for every Israeli hostage, but would vary depending on the category of hostages.

Israel lists 136 hostages in Gaza — including elderly Israelis, soldiers and reservists — though at least 27 of these are presumed dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out a permanent ceasefire to secure the hostages’ release, insisting that the Jewish state would continue with its war in its effort to destroy Hamas.

“Hamas is demanding, in exchange for the release of our hostages, the end of the war, the withdrawal of our forces from Gaza,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. “Were we to agree to this — our soldiers would have fallen in vain.”

The conditions proposed by Hamas “underscore a simple point — there is no substitute for victory”, he added.

An Israeli official said the country had offered a “framework” for a deal that included a pause, but was not prepared to agree to a ceasefire, and that the war on Hamas would continue. The official also said there were disagreements over the order in which hostages should be released, saying that Hamas wanted female soldiers to be among the last released and that Israel wanted them to be among the first. “We’re doing everything we can, everything in our power to release as many hostages as possible,” the official said. “Nothing is close to closing . . . or implementation.”

There has been widespread support in Israel for its war against Hamas, which was triggered by the Palestinian militants’ October 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. The militants also seized about 250 hostages.

But there is growing domestic pressure on Netanyahu to do more to secure the release of the remaining Israelis held in Gaza.

Leaked comments broadcast by Israel’s Channel 12 this week captured Netanyahu criticising Qatar’s mediation efforts when he was meeting hostage families. The premier can be heard calling Qatar a “problematic” intermediary.

He also urged the families to increase international pressure on Doha, which hosts Hamas’s political office.

His comments drew a rebuke from Qatar, which accused the Israeli leader of being “irresponsible and destructive”, adding that his remarks risked undermining efforts to secure the hostages’ release.

However, a Doha official told the Financial Times that the spat would not affect the mediation efforts. “Qatar would never jeopardise or hurt the mediations because of differences with individuals,” the official said. “The mediation is about saving the lives of the hostages and of Palestinian civilians and not about politicians.”

Qatar was the lead broker of the November truce that facilitated the release of more than 100 women and children held captive in Gaza. In return, Israel released 240 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons and allowed more aid into the battered Palestinian territory.

International pressure has been mounting on Israel to agree to a ceasefire as its offensive on Gaza has killed more than 25,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, and reduced much of the territory to rubble-strewn wastelands.

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