By Andrew Mills
DOHA (Reuters) - Qatari mediators are urging Hamas to quicken the pace of hostage releases to include women and children held in Gaza and to do so without expecting Israeli concessions, according to three diplomats and a source in the region familiar with the talks, as Israel readies a ground assault on the enclave.
The Gulf state, in coordination with the U.S., is leading mediation talks with Hamas and Israeli officials over the release of more than 200 hostages captured in the Palestinian group's cross-border onslaught on Oct 7.
Hamas on Monday freed two Israeli civilian women captives from the besieged enclave following the release of two hostages with dual U.S.-Israeli nationality on Friday.
Qatar is now discussing a larger release of civilians with Hamas and Israel, a fifth source told Reuters on Tuesday after being briefed on the negotiations. The source said the talks were progressing.
The talks are not about any of the Israeli soldiers held by Hamas, the diplomats and regional source familiar with the talks said. Hamas says such captive soldiers are strategic assets the group can eventually exchange for major concessions from Israel.
In Washington, two U.S. sources said that it was the U.S. understanding that Qatar is pushing Hamas to release a large group of hostages immediately and without expecting any Israeli concessions in return.
Some 222 people aged from 9 months to 85 years were seized on Oct. 7 when Hamas and other militants went on a killing spree through southern Israel, shooting motorists, hunting down civilians including children in their own homes, and burning and stabbing people to death, according to survivors' accounts.
In response, Israel has launched a bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 5,700 people, buried families in the rubble of their apartment blocks, maimed thousands and displaced a million people. It now plans a ground assault to destroy Hamas.
Among the arguments three of the sources say Qatar may be using in its contacts with Hamas is that releasing a large group of civilian hostages would ease a big logistical burden for the militant group as it navigates its confrontation with Israel.
Feeding and accommodating the captives, and tending to those who are wounded, are difficult for Hamas at a time when it is bracing for an Israeli assault and there is little food or medicine to spare for Gaza's 2.3 million population, the diplomats and source said.
Keeping track of the captives, held by several groups in various locations, makes this task even more onerous, three of the sources said.
A source in the region familiar with the hostage negotiations said it appeared that Hamas had not anticipated taking so many hostages and had not made preparations for keeping so many individuals. Israeli officials have said many of the captives could be held in the warren of tunnels under Gaza.
When its fighters stormed into Israel on Oct 7, "Hamas did not expect the operation would be as catastrophically successful as it was. Now they have all these hostages and they don't know what to do with them," the source in the region added.
Qatar has also argued to Hamas that a large civilian release could reap diplomatic benefits by showing the group, seen as a terrorist organization by many Western countries, as sensitive to international humanitarian concerns over the captivity of children and other non-combatants, two of the sources said.
A Hamas representative in Qatar did not respond to a request for comment. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to an email seeking comment.
In Jerusalem, an Israeli official said Hamas was using the hostage crisis for propaganda, trying to present itself as humane by releasing a handful of people they kidnapped. The official described this as "Nazi psychological warfare".
U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on Monday that Washington wanted "to see all the hostages released. We want to see them released unconditionally, and we want to see them released as soon as possible."
A release of civilians would still leave Hamas holding Israeli soldiers and security personnel. Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan said on Saturday the fate of Israeli army captives was related to a possible exchange of prisoners and in any case would not be discussed until Israel stopped attacking Gaza.
Qatar, which has ambitious foreign policy goals, has a direct line of communication with Hamas and Israel. It has previously helped mediate truces between the two.
A U.S. priority is to allow more time for negotiations on the release of hostages. But time may be running short.
The U.S. has advised Israel to hold off on a ground assault and is keeping Qatar apprised of that effort as the Gulf state seeks to mediate further hostage releases, two sources in Washington briefed on the hostage negotiations said on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, James Mackenzie in Jerusalem and Edmund Blair in Beirut, Editing by William Maclean and Nick Macfie)