Where things stand on a potential Israel-Hamas hostage deal

The Biden administration is anticipating a breakthrough on securing the release of dozens of hostages who were violently kidnapped by Hamas from Israel on Oct. 7.

The U.S. is involved in intensive negotiations alongside Israel to recover an estimated 240 people who are being held under an information blackout — proof of life, living conditions and health status all unknown and unconfirmed.

“We are now very close, very close,” President Biden said Tuesday during a meeting at the White House. “We could bring some of these hostages home very soon, but I don’t want to get into the details of things, because nothing is done until it’s done. And if we have more to say, we will. But things are looking good at the moment.”

The failure by Hamas to release all hostages is one reason that Israel, with backing from the U.S., has rejected a general cease-fire in its military operations on the Gaza Strip, despite increasing pressure from the international community to relent over a desperate humanitarian crisis and the deaths of more than 11,000 Palestinians, with half of those killed believed to be children.

The U.S. has reportedly proposed a deal in which Israel and Hamas cease fighting for five days, allowing Hamas to free dozens of women and children. Among the individuals believed to be held by Hamas include a months-old baby, toddlers and children, elderly and sick people.

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Biden has specifically mentioned a 3-year-old American hostage as focusing his motivations, with efforts happening hour-by-hour, five to six times a day, the president has said.

“I’m not going to stop till we get her,” Biden said last week.

Qatar and Egypt are the main go-betweens in working to negotiate the hostages’ release, retrieving messages from Hamas’s military leaders — believed to be hiding underground in the Gaza Strip — and transmitting them to Israeli and U.S. officials.

It’s a tedious back-and-forth, and U.S. and Israeli officials have accused Hamas of trying to stall Israel’s military incursion into Gaza by floating possible hostage releases that have failed to materialize.

An Israeli hostage negotiator told NPR the understanding is Hamas leaders are passing notes on pieces of paper through tunnels in Gaza, to intelligence officials at the Egyptian border, then out to Qatar, to U.S. officials and then to Israel.

In public statements, Hamas has made no distinction among those it kidnapped in its Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, referring to all its hostages as “Zionist prisoners,” a slur against what it views as Israel’s illegitimate existence.

While the majority of those kidnapped are Israelis, both civilians and some soldiers, civilians of other nationalities were also taken hostage, such as South Asians who were working in Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel’s Security Agency on Sunday released what they said was video evidence of Hamas forcibly transferring a Thai civilian and a Nepalese civilian through Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital.

And the IDF said it recovered the bodies of two people initially taken hostage by Hamas in Gaza: 19-year-old Cpl. Noa Marciano and civilian Yehudit Weiss, 65, a mother of five.

“I’m not sure that we all know where all the hostages are being kept at this point. We don’t even know who of them is alive and who is not alive, who is injured or not injured,” Eliav Benjamin, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Israel, told The Hill in an interview last week.

“Hamas is not even allowing the International Red Cross to come and visit them or to give them any sign of life — forget Israel, they’re not giving the International Red Cross any sign of life.”

Hamas has only released four people. The initial hostage releases were meant to demonstrate that such a transfer could be carried out with the cooperation of the international Red Cross, but some U.S. officials have said that the slow pace of releasing hostages pointed to Hamas not being serious about freeing their prisoners.

“It’s a real question if [Hamas military commander] Yahya Sinwar is serious in any degree about releasing those hostages,” Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told a House panel in early November.

Gerald Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen who also served as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the Obama administration, said that Hamas is likely issuing demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, which is delaying a deal.

“Hamas would not just be negotiating for a cease-fire. They want to come out of this demonstrating that they got some tangible benefit for Palestinians out of this whole thing,” he said. “And a cease-fire in and of itself doesn’t absolutely meet that requirement. They’ve got to get something more than that. And that might be the hold-up.”

Among those first released included an American mother and her teenage daughter on Oct. 20.

And two elderly Israeli women were released Oct. 23. One of the women, Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, detailed to the media shortly after her return to Israel that she “went through hell” during her 17-day captivity, and she provided unprecedented insight into how those kidnapped were being held.

Lifshitz spoke in front of a microphone while sitting in a wheelchair, surrounded by reporters who had crowded into the lobby of the hospital where she was recovering.

She detailed how Hamas had brought her down into a tunnel network, describing it as a massive spider web, walking for kilometers underground and being held in rooms large enough for more than two dozen people, according to an account reported by The New York Times.

Hostages were fed the same as their guards — a single meal daily that consisted of pita bread, two kinds of cheese and cucumber — and hostages were provided medication, shampoo and feminine hygiene products, Lifshitz said.

“They were very attentive to the sanitary aspect,” she said, according to The New York Times, “so we don’t get sick on them, God forbid. There was a doctor nearby who would come every two or three days to check in on us. And the medic took the responsibility to bring us medication. If they did not have the exact same medication, they brought us the equivalent.”

The families of hostages and their supporters have protested for weeks in Israel to keep the focus on the fate of their loved ones and to pressure the Israeli government to make every effort to secure their release.

Families have reportedly clashed with far-right Israeli politicians, criticizing their calls for the death penalty for Hamas members as threatening efforts to negotiate the release of their loved ones.

In the U.S., nearly 300,000 people came out in support of Israel in its war against Hamas at the National Mall, with the rally’s focus on securing the release of hostages and backing Israel’s rejection of a cease-fire with Hamas until those kidnapped are set free.

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