The Hamas–Israel hostage deal could pave the way to de-escalation and ultimately peace

Plans to rebuild Gaza after the war must be made alongside securing the safe return of all hostages.

Expert comment Published 22 November 2023 Updated 23 November 2023 4 minute READ

The complex hostage release deal announced this morning is welcome – but leaves many questions unanswered.

In order to ensure that this deal establishes an important benchmark in de-escalation of the conflict – helping to pave the way to stability, security, and ultimately peace – the mediators of the deal must continue to work towards key goals: ensuring that all hostages are released, and that plans are in place for the displaced population of Gaza as well as the rebuilding of Gaza’s governing institutions and infrastructure.

This will require clear agreements between the Palestinian Authority and all key international actors, to ensure a smooth transition on the day the war ends to a situation which provides stability and security for Palestine and Israel, and ultimately, peace.

The only way forward is to offer security guarantees for both Palestine and Israel, alongside the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi 2002 plan which was later adopted by the Arab League and calls for a sovereign Palestinian state alongside an Israeli sovereign state based on the 1967 Green Line, in exchange for peace agreements between Israel and all Arab countries. 

After weeks of painstaking indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, led by Qatar, Egypt and the US, a complex but only partial hostage deal has been approved by Israel and Hamas.

After weeks of painstaking indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, led by Qatar, Egypt and the US, a complex but only partial hostage deal has been approved by Israel and Hamas.

The agreement is a powerful example of how important it is that these key actors continue to work together for the long-term resolution of this conflict.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Israeli government voted by an overwhelming majority for the deal, not because anyone in the government felt that it is a good deal, but because no better one could be agreed, and it was time to get as many hostages as possible out alive to safety.

The terms of the deal

Under the terms of the deal, Israel has agreed to a four-day ceasefire, during the course of which Hamas will release a total of 50 children and women, around 12 daily, in exchange for a total of 150 Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli prisons, around 36 daily. The numbers could change. Israel has announced that the 150 Palestinian prisoners released will not have committed murder.

Substantial quantities of fuel and aid will flow into the Gaza Strip during the four-day ceasefire, and most contentiously for Israel, intelligence gathering drones will pause for six hours a day.

Substantial quantities of fuel and aid will flow into the Gaza Strip during the four-day ceasefire, and most contentiously for Israel, intelligence gathering drones will pause for six hours a day.  It is possible and likely that the ceasefire would be extended on a daily basis for the further release of more hostages each day, in exchange for more Palestinian prisoners.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will receive the hostages, and once they have crossed the border, the Palestinian prisoners will be released. It has also been agreed that the ICRC will visit the remaining hostages in Gaza.

Hamas claims to be holding 220 hostages out of at least 236 hostages taken on 7 October. A list of the hostages they hold was delivered on Tuesday to Egypt and Qatar. A list of the remaining hostages being held by Islamic Jihad and other groups, including criminal gangs, is yet to emerge, but their fate is deemed by the international community to be the responsibility of Hamas, the governing body in Gaza and the masterminds and perpetrators of the massacres and kidnappings of 7 October.

It is not clear yet what the future holds for the remaining hostages not included in this first deal, including many who are elderly and wounded.

It is not clear yet what the future holds for the remaining hostages not included in this first deal, including many who are elderly and wounded. There are also foreign nationals from approximately 35 different countries being held hostage, including foreign Thai and Nepalese workers. It is not clear when they will be released.

Complex negotiations

This process will not be straightforward nor clear-cut. Israel is bracing for tumultuous days ahead with soul-wrenching negotiations over individuals, and Hamas will likely seek further concessions over each individual hostage release.

That is one reason why the negotiations over the deal were so complex. Hamas will only disclose the names of the 12 or so hostages to be released the night before they are let go, leaving the hostage families in an agonising limbo until the names are announced.

There is intense and mounting pressure on the Israeli government to get all the hostages out. Thousands have marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and an estimated 20,000 people demonstrated for the hostages’ prompt release outside the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house on Saturday night.

In the end, the entire war cabinet voted for the deal, as well as the majority of the Israeli pre-war government which is still in power.

Hamas’s demands had split the Israeli emergency war cabinet in the weeks of negotiations leading to the announced deal, with members of Netanyahu’s government arguing that the expansion of the ground offensive is a better way to push for the hostages’ release. In the end, the entire war cabinet voted for the deal, as well as the majority of the Israeli pre-war government which is still in power.

This pressure on the Israeli government will only increase, as with every hostage returned, the calls from the families who will still have loved ones in captivity will grow louder. The mounting anger at the conduct of the Netanyahu government on this issue will not wane until all hostages are back safely. 

It is also important to remember that while the families of returned hostages will obviously be incredibly relieved to have them back, it is not known what kind of physical and mental state they will arrive in.

Among the hostages are around 40 children, a 9-month-old baby, and many just two or three years old, traumatized and held now for weeks in unknown conditions.

Israel is likely to come under further pressure from the international community to extend the ceasefire once it has started, and to end hostilities. The Hamas-run Ministry of Health has reported more than 14,000 deaths in Gaza since 8 October, of which 5,500 are children.

The World Health Organisation has warned of water borne diseases spreading. If the war goes on and Israel continues to fight in the areas in southern Gaza where the evacuees from the north have been seeking shelter, the number of civilian casualties is likely to rise dramatically.

So far the hostage negotiations have focussed on children and women. There are others who are being held, including wounded and elderly civilians, and soldiers who were ambushed at their base and kidnapped on 7 October. Hamas is likely to demand a very high price for their release.

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It is clear both that negotiations will go on beyond the four days of the ceasefire, and that the hostage release must be accompanied by strategic thinking and concrete plans for the future of Gaza.

It is imperative for the regional actors and the US to invest in a peace process that will allow for both Palestine and Israel to live in peace and security.

A safe transition to a path that starts with de-escalation needs to be prioritised. It is imperative for the regional actors and the US to invest in a peace process that will allow for both Palestine and Israel to live in peace and security.

Side-lining the Palestinian–Israeli peace process will likely result in a rapid escalation which is not in anyone’s interest.

Path to peace

To embark on that path to peace, plans for rebuilding Gaza and providing for the displaced Palestinian population need to be made in parallel to the hostage negotiations.

The continued engagement of Qatar, Egypt and the US is vital for this. Then once the war ends, the Palestinian Authority will need all the support it can get to govern in the West Bank and Gaza.

It is not in anyone’s interest to have Israel remain in Gaza during a transitional phase. Israel’s security concerns will need to be addressed by the mediators in this process.

To that end, the sooner discussions between key Arab states in the region and the US commence about the nature and scope of that support, the better.

Peace is ultimately the only answer to this conflict and all efforts need to be directed towards that goal.