Posted by on November 21, 2023 2:40 pm
Categories: News The Hill

White House says Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations in ‘delicate’ stage

The White House on Tuesday said a breakthrough in the release of some hostages held by Hamas can only occur with sign-off from the U.S.-designated terror group and the Israeli government on the negotiated terms, and that the situation has reached its most “delicate” phase.

“We are closer than we’ve been. We believe we’re getting closer,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a call with reporters. “We’re obviously working on this very, very hard, and we’re all hopeful, but we won’t say and do not want to say anything in these delicate hours that could put a deal at greater risk.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convening his war cabinet and then his security cabinet and the government on Tuesday evening local time. Kirby noted that the war cabinet and Hamas both have to approve of the deal for it to be finalized.

“We know that they still have to sign off on this and so does Hamas, that’s what a negotiation is all about,” Kirby said, adding that he “doesn’t want to handicap this thing.”

“I just have to be very careful about what we say, particularly right now.” 

Hamas kidnapped about 240 people from Israel on Oct. 7, during the attacks by the U.S.-designated terrorist organization that killed at least 1,200 people. Hamas has since released four people as part of intensive negotiations through Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. and Israel.

“We know who we’re dealing with here, and we know how tenuous these sorts of relations can be, which is why we’re being very, very careful,” Kirby said, referring to Hamas. “We’ve been close before and not been able to get across the finish line, so again, I’ll be careful how I characterize where we are.”

Kirby said the administration does not have a “hard number that we can independently verify” of the number of hostages that Hamas is holding or hostages being held by other groups in the Gaza Strip, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or hostages that may have been taken by Gazan civilians.

“I think it’s important to remember that other groups also likely hold some hostages… that Hamas may not have access to, or even immediate knowledge of with any great specificity.”

The administration has not spoken publicly about the specifics of the deal, but reporting indicates that nearly 50 hostages, to include women and children, may be released during a days-long pause in fighting. Some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails may be released, and deliveries of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip are expected to increase given the cessation of hostilities.

Kirby, in a call with reporters, outlined that if a deal is struck, the first step is to get hostages safe passage into Israel. He noted that many nationalities, including American and Israeli, are represented among the hostages. The administration has said that the youngest American hostage is 3 years old, but it’s not clear how many more, if any, of the hostages are Americans.

Kirby outlined that if hostages are released into Israel “they will most likely be provided immediate medical attention” and then he expects that every nationality will work to get their citizens connected with their families. He noted that once a deal is in place, “it could take hours, if not days, to complete their release” and that the U.S. will move at the pace necessary to ensure the hostages are safe.

“If an agreement is inked, it’s going to have to obviously have an execution and monitoring component to it because the safety and security of these people is paramount,” he added.

Kirby did not address whether a significant uptick in humanitarian aid is part of the deal surrounding the release of hostages. 

Brett McGurk, the Middle East coordinator in the National Security Council, had said during a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, that Hamas had set a “bargain” of calling for an influx of fuel and humanitarian supplies for the release of hostages, Politico reported

The release of hostages is expected to occur under a pause in fighting over several days, which also allows for humanitarian aid to move into the strip more easily. 

“We have been working to get humanitarian relief into Gaza, increasingly, but the surge in humanitarian relief, the surge in fuel, the pause in fighting, will come when hostages are released,” McGurk said. 

Kirby was not asked if humanitarian aid was part of the deal to release the hostages. But he said the White House had been working to increase aid deliveries in general, expressing frustration that the current scale of deliveries is failing to reach the goal of having 150 trucks enter the Palestinian enclave through the border crossing with Egypt, called Rafah.

While there is concern that Hamas would pilfer humanitarian aid meant for civilians, Kirby said the U.S. has seen no indication that such aid had reached Hamas.

The administration had earlier said that Hamas had sought to smuggle out its own wounded fighters on lists of injured Palestinians as a condition to allow aid to enter the strip, with the U.S., Egypt and other actors having to “scrub” lists of injured people to make sure that no Hamas fighters were exiting the strip.

Kirby said efforts are focused on streamlining deliveries into Gaza. 

“It’s a war zone, and the free flow of humanitarian aid is just more difficult when you know, when there’s combat nearby.”

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