U.S. Proposes Hostage-To-Prisoner Ratio in Gaza Truce Talks, Israeli Official Says

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Police officers try to move a burning barricade during a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and call for the release of hostages kidnapped in the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas from Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 23, 2024.

JERUSALEM/CAIRO (Reuters) – The United States has made a “bridging proposal” for the number of jailed Palestinians to be released by Israel in exchange for every hostage freed by Hamas in any new Gaza truce, an Israeli official briefed on the Qatar-hosted talks said on Saturday.

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad chief David Barnea has been in Doha for indirect negotiations with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which CIA director William Burns is helping Qatari and Egyptian officials to mediate.

Hamas wants to parlay any deal into a permanent end to the fighting – short of a formal peace, as the Islamist group is sworn to Israel’s destruction. Israel plans to pursue the war until Hamas’s governing and military capacities are dismantled.

“During the negotiations, significant gaps came to light on the question of the ratio” of prisoners to be released for each of the 40 hostages whose potential recovery is under discussion, said an Israeli official, who requested anonymity.

“The United States put a bridging proposal on the table, to which Israel responded positively. Hamas’ response is pending.”

The official provided no details on the U.S. proposal.

The U.S. embassy in Israel did not immediately comment.

Asked about the hostage-to-prisoner ratio, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri referred Reuters to a proposal made by the group this month under which Israel would free between 700 and 1,000 jailed Palestinians in return for female, minor, elderly and infirm captives. Israel called that “unrealistic”.

Abu Zuhri noted Israel’s refusal to agree to call off its offensive, withdraw forces and allow displaced Palestinians to return to homes in the northern Gaza Strip: scenes of some of the most intense fighting in the almost six-month-old conflict.

“What America and the Occupation (Israel) want is to regain the captives without a commitment to end the aggression, which means the resumption of war, killing and destruction, and we can’t accept that,” Abu Zuhri said.

U.S. President Joe Biden, echoing Israel, has said Hamas must be eliminated.

Israel has expressed openness to suspending its offensive for six weeks and allowing more humanitarian aid into Gaza in return for the 40 hostages. That would leave behind 90 hostages, out of 253 seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 cross-border rampage that sparked the war.

Under a previous truce, in late November, Israel released three jailed Palestinians, most of them young and accused of relatively light offences, for every hostage freed by Hamas, totalling 300 Palestinian prisoners for around 100 hostages.

Israeli officials have said they will likely have to agree to the release of a larger number of more senior Palestinian militants this time around.

Barnea flew back with other senior members of Israel’s delegation on Saturday evening, the Israeli official said, adding that their teams remain in Doha. The principals were prepared to shuttle back if the negotiations gain momentum, the official added.

The Hamas armed wing said on Saturday that an Israeli hostage had died due to “lack of medicine and food”.

Israeli officials have generally declined to respond to such announcements, accusing Hamas of psychological warfare. But Israel has itself declared 35 of the hostages dead in captivity.