Mar 4, 2024 - World

Scoop: Hamas' top priority in hostage deal is Palestinians' return to northern Gaza

Palestinian men collect wood near a building destroyed during Israeli strikes in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, on February 26, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Palestinian men collect wood near a building destroyed during Israeli strikes in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, on Feb. 26, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Qatari and Egyptian mediators told Israeli negotiators during talks last week that Hamas is willing to decrease the number of Palestinian prisoners released as part of a hostage deal if Israel agrees to allow more Palestinian civilians to return to northern Gaza, an Israeli official and a source with knowledge of the issue told Axios.

Why it matters: Pressure continues to mount on Israel and Hamas to reach an agreement that includes the release of hostages and a humanitarian ceasefire as aid groups warn half a million Palestinians are at risk of famine.

  • During the indirect talks in Doha last week, Israeli negotiators were told by Qatari and Egyptian mediators that the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza is a top priority for Hamas, the Israeli official said, adding they were surprised how important the issue is to Hamas.
  • In the negotiations, Hamas presents allowing Palestinians to return to the northern part of the Strip as a humanitarian issue, the official said.
  • The Israeli government sees it as a political matter: if Palestinians are permitted to return to northern Gaza, it could strengthen Hamas as a governing body in the enclave and make Israel's goal of toppling Hamas more difficult to achieve. Israel could also lose a point of leverage in the next phase of negotiations.

The big picture: More than one million Palestinians who lived in Gaza City and in the northern parts of the enclave have been displaced by Israel's military operation in the enclave, some of them several times.

  • The majority of these Palestinians are now in the city of Rafah near the border with Egypt, living in makeshift shelters and tents and suffering from dire humanitarian conditions.
  • About 300,000 Palestinians have stayed in northern Gaza where the infrastructure is almost completely destroyed, law and order is broken down and food and medical services are scarce.

Driving the news: The White House desperately wants a temporary ceasefire in Gaza and sees a deal for the hostages held by Hamas as the only way to get it.

  • The Biden administration wants the Qataris and the Egyptians — the key mediators in the hostage talks — to get Hamas to agree to a deal before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10.
  • A proposal presented by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt would involve Israel releasing about 400 Palestinian prisoners — including 15 convicted of murdering Israelis.
  • In exchange, Hamas would free about 40 Israeli hostages, including women, female soldiers, men over 50 and men who are in serious medical conditions.
  • The framework also included a roughly six-week pause in the fighting in Gaza — one day for every living hostage released — as well as a readiness for an initial and gradual return of Palestinian citizens to the northern part of the Strip.

State of play: After last week's talks in Doha, a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo over the weekend for meetings with Egyptian and Qatari mediators. Representatives of the CIA are also there to follow the talks.

  • Israel hasn't sent a delegation to the talks in Cairo, saying it will not continue the negotiations as long as Hamas does not provide a list of hostages who are alive, or give an answer to the 1:10 prisoner-hostage "ratio" that was included in the U.S.-Qatari-Egyptian proposal.
  • Hamas officials told al-Arabiya on Monday that they gave Egyptian mediators their response about the "ratio", but Israeli officials claimed they haven't heard about this from Cairo.

What to watch: The hostage talks will be discussed during meetings today at the White House with Israeli minister Benny Gantz and Vice President Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

  • Later today the Prime Minister of Qatar Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani — a key mediator in the hostage talks — will also visit the White House to meet President Biden's advisers.
Go deeper