US and Israeli spy chiefs have flown to Qatar for talks on how to extend the current truce in Gaza in exchange for the release of more hostages by Hamas.
The discussions of the CIA director, William Burns, and the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, with the Qatari leadership, are expected to focus on persuading Hamas to begin releasing the men among the remaining hostages.
The latest exchange of hostages in Gaza for Palestinians in Israeli jails was concluded late on Tuesday, with 10 Israeli citizens and two Thai nationals transferred from Gaza, and 30 Palestinians released in Ramallah and Jerusalem.
The foreign ministry of Qatar, which is mediating in the deal, said the freed hostages included nine women and one minor. Several of them were released by the al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement. The Palestinian Prisoners Club, a local NGO, said that the freed Palestinians were 15 women and 15 male teenagers.
It is hoped that another exchange will take place on Wednesday, with Israeli media reporting that Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has received a list with the names of the Israeli hostages that Hamas intends to release.
Israel has said the truce could be extended further, provided Hamas continues to free at least 10 Israeli hostages a day and Egyptian media are reporting that a deal to extend the truce has been agreed in principle, under the existing conditions.
The ceasefire that began on Friday was originally for four days and to allow for the release of 50 hostages in return for 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. An agreement was reached on Monday to extend the deal by another two days, until Wednesday, with Hamas to free 10 hostages for each extra day.
Thus far, all those freed have been women and children. It is thought that to extend the truce much beyond Wednesday, Hamas will have to begin freeing some of its adult male hostages. The group considers all Israeli men potential soldiers.
In a further complication for Israel, the IDF revealed that the remains of three soldiers killed on 7 October were now held by Hamas in Gaza. Historically, Israel has sought the return of its dead with the same commitment as to the living.
“CIA director Burns and Mossad director Barnea are in Doha for a series of meetings initiated by Qatar’s prime minister to discuss the potential terms of a deal beyond the two-day extension,” a source briefed on the visit said, adding that Egyptian officials were also attending.
Israel’s politicians and military have made clear since the truce began last Friday that they intended to return to military operations in Gaza, including in the south of the strip where up to 2 million people now live.
During a visit to an IDF intelligence unit, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “We are committed to completing these missions: freeing all of the hostages, eliminating this terrorist organisation above and below ground and, of course, that Gaza must not return to being what it was, that it will no longer constitute a threat to the state of Israel.”
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu is reluctant to extend any ceasefire beyond 10 days, the maximum stipulated in the original deal signed off by his government. He said 74 hostages had been released so far, including 50 women and children.
Herzi Halevi, the IDF chief of staff, said on Tuesday: “We are preparing for the continuation of the operation to dismantle Hamas. It will take time, these are complex goals, but they are justified beyond measure.”
The IDF plan is to target Khan Younis, where Israel believes Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, is based.
Humanitarian organisations are already warning of dire consequences if intensive fighting starts in the south of Gaza. Bushra Khalidi, a policy lead with Oxfam, said: “A restart of fighting could escalate to unprecedented levels of mass casualties, which have already reached alarming numbers. From what we observe, Israel’s intentions to continue operations in the south are clear and have shown no signs of abating.”
In Israel, there are concerns that patience in Washington is wearing thin. Officials describe a “window of legitimacy” that may be closing.
On Tuesday evening John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson, repeated the administration’s message that “we don’t support southern operations unless or until the Israelis can show that they have accounted for all the internally displaced people of Gaza”.
The US has told Israel it cannot conduct its military operations in the south in the same way as it did in the north, flattening whole neighbourhoods in pursuit of Hamas fighters and hideouts.
Kirby said that Israel was “receptive to that message” but would not be more specific.
A senior US official said the Biden administration was asking Israel to pursue operations in the south in “the most discreet, deliberate, careful, cautious way possible”.
“It is very important that the conduct of the Israeli campaign, when it moves to the south, must be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant further displacement of persons,” the US official said.
“You cannot have the sort of scale of displacement that took place in the north replicated in the south. It will be beyond disruptive. It will be beyond the capacity of any humanitarian support network, however reinforced, however robust to be able to cope with.”
The phrase “safe zones” is no longer being used by US officials who now talk about “areas of deconfliction” to which Palestinians could take refuge if their district became the target of a military operation.
“It’s practical, pragmatic arrangements at multiple places on the ground,” a senior official said. “No one is going to be forced out of their homes by intent. And these areas are not designed as places preemptively for people to go to. It is inevitable though that in any kinetic campaign [military operation], however carefully managed, there is going to be a certain inevitable movement of persons who will judge their safety to the better off somewhere than where they are.”
The US said an average 240 aid trucks were passing through the Rafah crossing into Gaza every day, with 400 in the queue to enter on Tuesday. The White House announced the first of three US military transport flights over the next few days into Arish airport on the Egyptian side of the border, bringing humanitarian goods to replenish stocks in depots around Arish.
The IDF’s expected military campaign in southern Gaza will be a test of US-Israeli relations, focusing attention on what leverage Washington has on the Netanyahu government. The US president drew attention when he was asked on Friday about the possibility of putting conditions on aid to Israel.
He called it a “worthwhile thought” but then added that if he had used that policy at the start of the war, he didn’t think “we’d ever gotten to where we are today”, a reference to the hostage ceasefire and humanitarian deliveries. The remark led to speculation that it was a warning message to Netanyahu.
“I think it was totally intentional and totally calibrated … So it was deniable but it sent a very clear message and that message was that we have preferences and we have tools to enforce those preferences and there needs to be greater sensitivity to American advice,” said Jon Alterman, vice-president and director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.