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The secret negotiations that led to the Gaza hostages deal

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The secret negotiations that led to the Gaza hostages deal



Shortly after Hamas militants took hostages during their deadly assault on southern Israel on October 7, the government of Qatar contacted the White House with a request: Form a small team of advisers to help work to get the captives freed.

That work, begun in the days after the hostages were taken, finally bore fruit with the announcement of a prisoner swap deal mediated by Qatar and Egypt and agreed by Israel, Hamas and the United States.

The secretive effort included tense personal diplomatic engagement by US President Joe Biden, who held a number of urgent conversations with the emir of Qatar and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weeks leading up to the deal.

It also involved hours of painstaking negotiations including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Director Bill Burns, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy Jon Finer, and US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk, among others.

Two officials involved in the effort provided extensive details of the work that led to an agreement in which 50 hostages are to be freed in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners during a four-day pause in fighting.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan takes questions during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. October 10, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

Qatar’s helped broker initial release

Shortly after October 7, Qatar – a long-established mediator in a volatile region – approached the White House with sensitive information regarding the hostages and the potential for their release, the officials said. The Qataris asked that a small team, which they called a “cell,” be established to work the issue privately with the Israelis.

Sullivan directed McGurk and another National Security Council official, Josh Geltzer, to establish the team. This was done without telling other relevant US agencies because Qatar and Israel demanded extreme secrecy with only a few people to be in the know, the officials said.

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McGurk, a seasoned diplomat with deep experience in the Middle East, held daily morning calls with the prime minister of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani. He reported back to Sullivan and Biden was briefed daily on the process.

Biden got an upfront look at what the victims of the Hamas attack endured when he held an emotional, lengthy meeting on October 13 with the families of Americans who were either being held hostage or were unaccounted for.

Days later, Biden traveled to Tel Aviv for October 18 talks with Netanyahu. The official said securing the release of hostages was a central focus of his discussions with Netanyahu and his war cabinet, as well as humanitarian assistance.

Five days later, on October 23, the White House team’s work helped yield the release of two American hostages, Natalie and Judith Raanan.

From outside Sullivan’s West Wing office McGurk, Sullivan and Finer tracked in real time the captives’ difficult, multi-hour journey out of Gaza.

The return of the two Americans proved it was possible to gain freedom for hostages and gave confidence to Biden that Qatar could deliver through the small team that had been established, the officials said.

Now, an intensified process started to get more hostages out. When this happened, Burns began speaking regularly with Mossad director David Barnea.

Biden saw an opportunity to gain the release of a large number of hostages and that a deal for prisoners was the only realistic path to securing a pause in the fighting, the officials said.

Deal nearly reached prior to ground invasion

On October 24, with Israel poised to launch a ground offensive in Gaza, the US side got word that Hamas had agreed to the parameters of a deal to release women and children, which would mean a pause and a delay in the ground invasion.

US officials debated with the Israelis whether or not the ground offensive should be delayed.

The Israelis argued that terms were not firm enough to delay, since there was no proof of life for the hostages. Hamas claimed they could not determine who was being held until a pause in fighting began.

Americans and Israelis viewed the Hamas position as disingenuous. The official said Israel’s invasion plan was adapted to support a pause if a deal came together.

Biden then engaged over the next three weeks in detailed talks as proposals about a potential hostage release were traded back and forth. Demands were made that Hamas produce the lists of hostages it was holding, their identifying information, and guarantees of release.

The process was long and cumbersome – communication was difficult and messages had to be passed from Doha or Cairo into Gaza and back, the officials said.

Biden held a previously undisclosed phone call with the Qatari prime minister when the phasing of releases began to take shape, the official said.

Under the agreement that was taking shape, women and children hostages would be freed in a first phase, together with a commensurate release of Palestinian prisoners from the Israelis.

The Israelis insisted Hamas ensure all women and children come out in this phase. The US side agreed, and demanded through Qatar proof of life or identifying information for women and children held by Hamas.

Hamas said it could guarantee 50 in the first phase, but refused to produce a list of identifying criteria. On November 9, Burns met in Doha with the Qatari leader and the Mossad’s Barnea to go through the texts of the emerging arrangement.

The key obstacle at that point was that Hamas had not clearly identified who it was holding.

Three days later, Biden called the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and demanded to know the names or clear identifying information for the 50 hostages including ages, gender and nationalities. Without the information, the official said, there was no basis to move forward.

Shortly after Biden’s call, Hamas produced details for the 50 hostages it said would be released in the first phase of any deal.

Biden in a November 14 call urged Netanyahu to take the deal – Netanyahu agreed.

McGurk saw Netanyahu that same day in Israel. Walking out of a meeting, Netanyahu grabbed McGurk’s arm and said “we need this deal” and urged Biden call the emir of Qatar on the final terms, one of the officials said.

“Time was up”

Talks stalled as communications went dark in Gaza.

When they resumed, Biden was in San Francisco attending an Asia-Pacific summit. He called the emir of Qatar and told him this was the last chance, and the emir pledged to apply pressure to close the deal, the officials said.

“The president insisted the deal had to close, now. Time was up,” one official said.

On November 18, McGurk met in Doha with the Qatari prime minister. Burns was dialed in after he spoke with Mossad. The meeting identified the last remaining gaps toward a deal.

The agreement was now structured for women and children to be freed in the first phase, but with an expectation for future releases and the aim to bring all hostages home to their families.

In Cairo the next morning, McGurk met with Egypt intelligence chief Abbas Kamil. Word came from Hamas leaders in Gaza that they had accepted nearly all the agreements worked out the day before in Doha.

Only one issue remained, tied to the number of hostages to be released in the first phase and the ultimate structure of the deal to incentivize releases beyond the 50 known women and children, the officials said.

A flurry of additional contacts ensued, and the deal finally came together.





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Jewish diaspora expresses concern as Iranian drones launch toward Israel

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Jewish diaspora expresses concern as Iranian drones launch toward Israel



Jewish diaspora organizations expressed concern for Israel and increased their own security preparedness as Iran launched drones against Israel on Saturday night.

The Jewish Federation said it was comforted by IDF statements that the situation was under control and by the statements of support by the United States of America, but was watching “Iran’s launch of an attack on Israel with extreme concern.”

“We are monitoring the situation very closely and join in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

Preparing for attacks in the diaspora

The Conference of European Rabbis said that Jewish communities in Europe were raising their level of preparedness, given the history of Iranian proxies attacking Jewish targets on the continent.

A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on October 4, 2023. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

“We are closely monitoring the Iranian attack on Israel and its implications for the security of Jews in the diaspora,” said conference president Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt. ‘We are in contact with all the leaders of the Jewish communities and security officials across the continent. I call on all Jews across Europe to remain vigilant in community institutions and to act responsibly in the public sphere.” 





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Dozens of Palestinians and Jews injured in West Bank altercations

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Dozens of Palestinians and Jews injured in West Bank altercations



The IDF said on Saturday night that dozens of Jews and Palestinians had been injured in altercations in the West Bank following the terrorist murder of 14-year-old shepherd, Binyamin Achimair.

Though he was murdered on Friday, his death was only confirmed Saturday afternoon, with the subsequent violence between Jewish extremists and Palestinians being declared the largest battles in the area not involving IDF forces since February 2023.

In February 2023, dozens or more of extremist Jews burned large swaths of Palestinian property in Huwara in the West Bank, injured a number of Palestinians, and killed at least one Palestinian.

The IDF said it had significantly beefed up its forces in the area to try to maintain order, but it appeared to be on a significant delay from after multiple rounds of attempts by Jewish extremists to take revenge on nearby Palestinians villages, though these extremists did not have any specific information about who might have committed the murder.

After February 2023, the IDF apologized for failing to react fast enough to protect Palestinians and had said it would preemptively beef up to be ready for future potential reactions by Jewish extremists to the killing of Jews in the West Bank by Palestinians.

Binyamin Achimair, Missing 14-year-old boy from Samaria, Police are requesting help in searching, April 12, 2024. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

One area attacked by Jewish extremists on Saturday was the Duma village, south of Nablus.

A mix of Israeli, Arab, and US media reported that Jewish extremists also attacked over Friday and Saturday al-Mughayyir, Deir Dibwan, and Beitin, east of Ramallah and the town of Sinjil, northeast of Ramallah.

Violence from both sides

There were also reports of Palestinian counterattacks.

It was unclear which reports involved live fire, which lower grade rock-throwing style violence and how much violence was committed by each side.

Reports did say that dozens of Palestinians’ cars or structures were set on fire by extremist Jews, with some reports of Palestinian deaths.

By Shin Bet statistics, most extremist Jews, though not all, involved in violence come from a specific list of West Bank settlements or outposts.





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Israeli drone shot down by Hezbollah was worth $10 million

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Israeli drone shot down by Hezbollah was worth $10 million



An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was shot down last Saturday by Hezbollah. The UAV was later revealed as an Elbit Systems Hermes 900 Kochav, valued at around $10 million. 

The Hermes 900 is Elbit’s largest drone and has been sold to the Israeli Air Force, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and according to foreign reports, Azerbaijan. The UAV is a relatively large and expensive drone capable of staying in the air for approximately 30 straight hours.

Hermes 900 UAV (credit: ELBIT SYSTEMS)

The IDF’s response to Hezbollah terror

Following the downing of the UAV, the IDF struck targets in Baalbek deep in Lebanon, on the border with Syria. Missiles were fired in the next morning towards the Golan Heights, and in the afternoon towards Kibbutz Manara and Moshav Margaliot.

Proceeding this, about a month and a half ago, the IDF announced that an Israeli Air Force UAV was shot down by Hezbollah in Lebanese territory. In response, the IDF struck targets of the terrorist organization in the Baalbek area in Lebanon for the first time since the Second Lebanon War. Baalbek is approximately 100 km. north of the border and is the northernmost target that the IDF has struck since the beginning of the war.





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