(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene Israel’s cabinet on Tuesday evening after signaling that a deal with Hamas to free hostages in Gaza in return for a temporary pause in fighting is getting closer.
“We are making progress,” Netanyahu said, referring to the return of some of the 240 hostages abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7. “I don’t think its worth saying too much, not even at this moment, but I hope there will be good news soon.”
Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh earlier indicated Qatar-mediated negotiations were moving forward, following similar comments from US President Joe Biden. “The movement delivered its response to the brothers in Qatar and the mediators, and we are close to reaching a truce agreement,” Haniyeh, who’s based in Qatar’s capital, said in a statement on Telegram.
Israel, which has vowed to destroy Hamas, has said for weeks that it won’t contemplate a cease-fire until all hostages are returned. But in recent days there have been growing signs the two sides are nearing a deal, which would require approval by Israel’s full Cabinet.
The country’s war effort is being led by a three-man emergency cabinet comprising Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, an opposition leader.
Qatar is helping broker the talks between Israel and Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said the negotiations are at a critical stage.
Talks have fallen through in the past, however, and there’s no guarantee of success on this occasion.
The developments come as international pressure grows on Israel to end its more than six-week retaliatory offensive in Gaza, which authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say has killed more than 13,000 people and triggered a humanitarian crisis.
An Arab and Muslim delegation headed by Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat visited Russia on Tuesday, a day after it was in China, and called for an “urgent” cease-fire in Gaza. Leaders of the BRICS club of major emerging nations who held a video summit Tuesday echoed that message.
Hamas has agreed in principle for more than 50 women and children to be released, Axios reported earlier. In return, Israel would pause its military attacks for a specified time each day and release some Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Israel’s Channel 12 cited an unnamed senior Israeli official saying that a hostage deal is “very close.” Those to be released would be children, their mothers, and other women, the report added.
Israeli forces have been engaged in intense fighting with Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip even as the hostage talks have progressed. The main thrust of Israel’s ground offensive is into Gaza City, which the military describes as Hamas’s “center of gravity.”
Troops have taken control of many parts of the city’s Al Shifa hospital and over the weekend showed videos they say prove Hamas exploited the facility, building a command center and tunnels underneath.
While Israel has concentrated its air strikes and ground assault on northern Gaza, it is now turning its attention to the south, signaling the possibility of sending troops there. Israel has urged civilians to evacuate to southern Gaza since the beginning of the war.
The United Nations says the humanitarian situation in the densely packed Gaza Strip is dire and that its roughly 2 million inhabitants need much more food and medicine.
Fears also remain of the war growing into a wider Middle East conflict as exchanges of fire along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon continue daily.
Israeli warplanes on Tuesday struck targets inside Lebanese territory after Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters shot mortar shells at a military post, Israel’s army said. Three civilians including two journalists died in the Israeli bombing, the Lebanese state-run National News Agency reported.
--With assistance from Michael Heath, Gwen Ackerman and Omar Tamo.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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