Wed 10 Apr 2024 2:31 pm - Jerusalem Time

Do Netanyahu and Sinwar Want a Deal?

The current round of Israel-Hamas negotiations is ongoing. Hamas has not yet responded officially, neither has Israel. Both sides have indicated that their initial response is “no, but not completely no”. We don’t know exactly what is on the table. As I said during the first week of the war, what is in the media is part of the negotiations – information, disinformation and misinformation – these are all negotiating tactics. If there is an initial agreement, there are many details to work out. Many of the most difficult of those details concern the release of Palestinian prisoners. If there will be 100 Palestinian prisoners released serving life sentences because they killed Israelis, who will select them? What will be the terms of their releases? Can they be deported as happened in the Shalit deal? Can they be sent to Gaza? Hamas, as reported has demanded that they will select the 100 prisoners (of 700-900 prisoners to be released in exchange for 40 Israeli hostages). Hamas has also demanded that no one be deported and that they all should be allowed to return to their homes (in the West Bank and East Jerusalem). But my main question is why, after six months are we only talking about a partial deal? Why are we negotiating only for 40 hostages when there are 133 hostages in Gaza? Why are we discussing a six-week ceasefire when we should be talking about ending the war?

From the very beginning of the war on October 7, 2023 there was a built-in contradiction in Israel’s war goals: dismantling Hamas’s ability to govern, dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities and returning the hostages to Israel. Initially and during most of the past six months, Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu have stated explicitly that the first two goals of the war including the killing of the top Hamas leaders and military command, especially Yehya Sinwar are the number one priority. Bringing the hostages home was the number one priority only for a very short seven days in November 2023.

The massive destruction done by Israel in Gaza is not aimed solely at dismantling Hamas military and governing abilities, it is done because Hamas killed 1200 Israelis and took 250 hostages, humiliated Israel in the eyes of the world, toppled Israel’s strategic understandings of Hamas and the region. The Israeli rage is also because since October 7 more than 600 Israeli soldiers have been killed. Teaching Hamas a lesson is not only Israeli hubris, it is viewed as existential because Hamas exposed Israel’s military weakness and unpreparedness with the ease at which its border was breached and civilian communities were unprotected. One of the Hamas leaders recently said “If we knew how easy it was to breach the border, we would have brought 10,000 Elite force soldier and conquered Tel Aviv”. If we honestly look in the mirror, we must also say that a lot of what Israel has done in Gaza is pure and simple revenge.

Hamas also seeks revenge because of all of the years of occupation, the 17 yeaars of siege on Gaza, and now more than 32,000 people in Gaza by Israeli bombs and Israeli soldiers on the ground, more than half of them women, children and non-combatants. Most of Gaza has been destroyed, flattened, leaving nothing but ruins for the 2.3 million Gazans to see now for all of the years to come. Israel didn’t stop for a moment to think about the fact that after the war, these 2.3 million people will remain in Gaza and they will always be Israel’s neighbors. Was it really necessary to flatten all of Gaza? Was it absolutely necessary to blow up every government building, every court house, every university, every health clinic, roads, water infrastructure, electricity network, etc.? Such brutality demonstrated by Israel will not help in trying to build a future where the Israeli and Palestinian people will be able to live side-by-side in peace.

In the early days of the war, during the first two months at least, a deal could have been made between Hamas and Israel which could have brought home all of the hostages, but Hamas demanded that Israel release all of the Palestinian prisoners in Israel. There were about 8,000 prisoners at that time including 559 serving life sentences for killing Israelis. The initial deal done in late November released women and children hostages, and 20 foreigner workers in exchange for women and teenage Palestinian prisoners to the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a seven-day ceasefire. There was an open door to continue additional releases of hostages and prisoners, but Hamas said it would release elderly hostages and some dead hostages instead of the remaining women and children. Hamas then claimed that they did not have full control over all of the remaining women and children and they needed more time to secure them. This could have been true at the time, but we have no way of knowing for sure. Hamas also indicated that the deal of three Palestinian prisoners for each hostage would change and they would demand more prisoners for the remaining hostages. Israel read this as a breach of the agreement and determined that Hamas was only interested in prolonging the ceasefire. Netanyahu and other ministers in the war cabinet were itching to give the army the greenlight to continue to war and advance with the war in Gaza city and to rapidly move south. The army wanted to prove that it had overcome the failures of October 7, and Netanyahu used the Hamas breach to restart the war in full force instead of utilizing the ongoing deal to bring home whoever Hamas was willing to release. If Netanyahu wanted to bring all of the hostages home alive, he would have continued that deal for as long as possible. But he did not.

Among Netanyahu’s base and within the government there are always reminders that Netanyahu was the Prime Minister who released the leaders of Hamas from prison in 2011, 1027 prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Since 2011, as a negotiator with Hamas, I was constantly told by Israeli officials in charge of the negotiations to tell the Hamas leaders that there would never ever again be a Shalit deal. In fact, from 2014 until the beginning of the war on October 7, 2023 negotiations were taking place for the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, and two Israeli civilians Avera Mengisto and Hisham A-Sayed, both mentally unwell. Those negotiations froze because Hamas demanded that Israel release prisoners serving life sentences because they murdered Israelis and Israel’s refusal to release even one of them.

More than six months into the war, Israel has succeeded in two search and rescue operations bringing home three living hostages. Israel has conquered and destroyed nearly 80% of Gaza. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel and about two million Gazans are displaced people with no homes to return to. Hamas’s priorities and demands have changed since the beginning of the war. They are no longer focused on the “all for all” deal – all of the hostages for all of the Palestinian prisoners. Today they are much more focused on ending the war, getting Israel out of Gaza, enabling people to return to their homes or the place where their homes were, significantly increased humanity aid and a clear plan for rebuilding Gaza. They still want thousands of Palestinian prisoners to be released for the hostages but there seems to be more flexibility on that than previously. And they still want to remain in control of Gaza. It seems though, that while in the West Bank Hamas’s popularity may have increased, in Gaza the overwhelming majority want Hamas to go forever – at least that is what many recent news reports are showing.

From Netanyahu’s viewpoint, Hamas’s demands leave Hamas in control of Gaza and that is a non-starter. Netanyahu has promised Israel that there would be total victory over Hamas. He has promised that all of the hostages would be released as a result of military pressure. He is convinced that the hostages must be located in the south of Gaza between the cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah and that is why he is insisting on continuing the military operations in Rafah – with a date set for the operation, as Netanyahu announced. He is also convinced that total victory can only be achieved if Israel invades Rafah “to complete the job” as Netanyahu calls it. I have yet to meet a serious Israeli military person who understands what total victory over Hamas means. Yet most of Israel’s military leaders believe that military pressure is the only way to release the hostages. The thinking is that when the Israeli forces get to the Hamas leadership deep underground in tunnels and bunkers, they will be killed, the chain of command in Hamas will break down completely and the hostages will be freed. But a much more likely scenario is that Israel will find the Hamas leadership in the bunkers, they will be surrounded by hostages, a gun battle will ensue, Israel will kill the Hamas leaders but many of the soldiers and hostages will also be killed. The bunker itself might may be armed with heavy explosives that will kill all of the Israeli soldiers, Israeli hostages, the Hamas fighters and their leadership. The chain of command within Hamas would probably break down, but there is no guarantee that those Hamas fighters holding hostages outside of that bunker would not simply execute the hostages.

In the meantime, the war has basically ended with most of the Israeli forces outside of Gaza. There are those who claim that the Israeli withdrawal of most of its forces and the sharp increase in humanitarian aid weakens Israel in the current negotiations. That might be true. My view is different. Hamas and Israel have both claimed that the other side is not serious about the negotiations. Hamas indicated to me that they want to see a sign that Israel is serious. Although acting under extreme pressure from the US, the Israeli actions are an indication that Israel is serious and now we will have to see if Hamas is becoming more serious in the negotiations. Hamas’s decision-making process remains complex and slow. They conduct consultations between the members of their Shura Council in Doha, Beirut, Istanbul, and Gaza. In the past the consultations also included the prisoners in Israel, but that is not possible now. Communication with Gaza is also complex and takes time and it is clear today that while Yehya Sinwar is not the sole decision maker, he does have the final word, as I have been told.

As we wait for decisions, the one thing that remains constant and true is that every day that the hostages are in Gaza is a risk to their lives. That fact does not seem to persuade Netanyahu to do everything humanly possible to bring them home. This must be Israel’s first priority because Israel failed to protect its citizens on October 7 and Israel has a moral responsibility to bring them home.


The writer is the Middle East Director of ICO - International Communities Organization - a UK based NGO working in Conflict zones with failed peace processes. Baskin is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He is also a founding member of “Kol Ezraheiha - Kol Muwanteneiha” (All of the Citizens) political party in Israel.



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