Anatomy of a deal: Why a hostage release has finally got over the line

The families of those being held by Hamas have been calling for their release for weeks (AFP via Getty Images)
The families of those being held by Hamas have been calling for their release for weeks (AFP via Getty Images)

The agreement for a ceasefire and the first large-scale freeing of hostages held by Hamas came after weeks of negotiations which had been taking place against the brutal and bloody backdrop of a war claiming thousands of lives in Gaza.

Around half a dozen countries, most with nationals who were kidnapped in the attack on 7 October, have been involved in the negotiations, which have been taking place with Qatar as the main interlocutor between Israel and Hamas and the US playing an active role.

The deal is basically the same as one which had been discussed in the past – return of a certain number of women, children and those ill among the 240 hostages who were seized in exchange for Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.

The agreement which was said to have come very close to being concluded last month was for around 50 of the hostages being freed in return for about 110 Palestinian inmates. The terms stipulated a temporary ceasefire for this to take place, with a period of three days mooted.

But it fell apart as it neared the last hurdle. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that all the hostages being held must be freed, and this would come about, he insisted, through Hamas feeling pressure enforced by pulverising military action.

At the time the Israeli cabinet appeared to have consensus in this stance. But divisions began to emerge, and the current agreement takes place amid severe discord in Netanyahu’s cabinet and angry clashes between ministers and families of those taken.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (via REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (via REUTERS)

The cabinet was split between those in the government who wanted a deal to get out as many of the hostages as possible, and those who believed that much tougher terms can be extracted from Hamas with ongoing armed operations.

There was also the argument from those who wanted to reject that deal was that the ceasefire which would accompany the freeing of hostages would mean military momentum being lost and Hamas and its allies being able to regroup and replenish.

Among those arguing for an agreement, it is said, were Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, both of whom had been brought into the war cabinet, as well as David Barnea, the head of Mossad, who had been to Doha along with William Burns, the CIA director, to meet Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.

In the opposite camp were those, like Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who wanted far tougher terms for a ceasefire. That side were believed to be backed by the majority of senior military officers.

Then there are those like the far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has said he is very worried about release of prisoners, pointing to the thousand who were freed in exchange for the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit in 2011. One of those freed, Yahya Sinwar, became the leader of Hamas in Gaza, and is allegedly one of the masterminds 7 October attack.

Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir (Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters)
Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir (Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters)

Ben-Gvir and his religious hard-right colleagues are accused of seeing the war as an opportunity to expand the Jewish state by seizing Palestinian land. They have advocated annexing the West Bank which is administered at present by the Palestinian Authority.

Ben-Gvir and his allies have been in confrontation with families of hostages who have been campaigning to bring their loved ones home. They have objected to demands by some of hard-right MPs for death sentences for captured Hamas fighters who had taken part in the 7 October attack, pointing out this puts the kidnap victim at risk.

There were chaotic scenes in the Knesset during a meeting on Monday with MPs with members of right-wing parties jeering at some of the family members. At one point Ben-Gvir forcibly hugged Gil Dickmann whose cousin is being held hostage.

Afterwards Dickmann wrote on Twitter/X “I told you: Don’t hug me. And you still did. I told you: Don’t endanger our loved ones. You still endangered them and all for a photograph… everyone has seen that you are making a circus on the blood of our families.”

There is another element which has played a role – the day after scenario. Not, in this case, what would happen to Gaza when the conflict ended, but the fate of Netanyahu and his government, as well as military and intelligence chiefs, who had presided over the biggest intelligence failure in the country’s history since the Yom Kippur War.

Golda Meir resigned as prime minister over the intelligence failures in that conflict in 1973. A public inquiry is due to begin about what happened this time and Netanyahu, who has sold himself to the electorate as “Mr Security”, is extremely vulnerable.

“He [Netanyahu] is almost certainly toast the morning after the war is over. The same is probably true of the military leadership, so they have not played the moderating role [in the hostage negotiations] that they might ordinarily be expected to,” said Daniel Levy who took part in peace negotiations in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

“The government has been pushing the idea that it is only military pressure that put a deal on the table in the first place. Something very similar was available four weeks ago. But if that’s the narrative that they need to make it viable – that’s fine. They might have preferred not to do the release at all, but if they have to, this is the story that they will push.”