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Negotiations between Qatar and the Israeli and US spy chiefs over the remaining hostages kidnapped by Hamas have taken on a new urgency after Israel’s military shot and killed in error three of its citizens held in Gaza.
The talks, which had been stalled for weeks, resumed on Monday in Warsaw. They were the first between all three parties since the collapse of the previous hostage-for-prisoner swap, in which 86 Israeli women and children were traded for 240 Palestinian prisoners under the cover of a fragile, week-long truce. Hamas also released another 24 foreigners, mostly Thai workers kidnapped from farms near the Gaza border.
The talks between Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, CIA chief Bill Burns and David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, were “positive”, said a person familiar with the discussions. But the person added that a deal was not imminent.
Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political office, has been mediating the talks.
Hamas is seeking a longer truce, and has said it wants all of the Palestinians held in Israeli prisons — a number that has swelled past 10,000 in recent weeks — to be freed before it releases the 129 hostages, mostly soldiers and reservists, it is still believed to hold. Some, however, may already be dead.
“Negotiators don’t see a deal happening imminently, but they are trying to explore different options,” the person familiar with the talks said. “The good thing is talks are happening, and that they have been discussing different proposals.”
It was the first time Sheikh Mohammed, Burns and Barnea have held talks together since the original truce collapsed. Barnea had been expected to travel to Doha last week, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vetoed the trip, a person familiar with the talks said.
Barnea then met Sheikh Mohammed in a bilateral meeting in Europe on Friday — the day Israeli troops mistakenly killed the three hostages in Gaza, who were shirtless and waving a white flag — to revive talks over a possible deal with Hamas.
A critical issue is the price Israel would be willing to pay for hostages that Hamas is classifying as soldiers, an Israeli official said. Some women are still held because the Palestinian terror group considers them military reservists, as are some elderly men.
Under the original deal, the hostilities paused for a week during which the militant group released women and children held in Gaza in batches. In return, Israel halted its offensive, allowed more aid into the besieged strip and freed Palestinian women and children held in its prisons.
On Monday night, Hamas released a video of three men — Chaim Peri, 79, Yoram Metzger, 80, and Amiram Cooper, 80 — saying in Hebrew that they are from the generation that founded the state of Israel and its military.
Peri, a peace activist, had campaigned for the end of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories for decades before being kidnapped from his home in Kibbutz Nir Oz. In the video, set to a popular Hebrew folk song from the 1970s, the hostages appear to have been forced to sing lines from a biblical psalm.
“Do not cast me away when I am old,” the men sing, their beards bushy and hair trimmed close in the devout Islamic style favoured by Hamas elders.
Metzger’s son Rani told Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday that he was encouraged to see his father alive, but worried about his health.
“Dad is skinny. Dad looks tired. Dad looks extinguished,” he said. “Dad, who likes to eat well and who knows how to enjoy food, [a man] with a round face, a broad smile on his lips, a man who likes to talk a lot and to laugh — they’re living in a really bad situation.”
The Israeli official briefed on the talks said that Israel would continue its military campaign against Hamas until the negotiations were successful, as Netanyahu argues that weakening Hamas strengthens Israel’s hand in the hostage talks. Israel also would not negotiate for dead hostages, presumed to be at least 20, the official said.
Hamas, meanwhile, appears convinced that it can extract a high price for the Israeli soldiers, including the release of Palestinians convicted of murder in military courts. Israel has in the past freed a large number of prisoners to secure the release of its soldiers, including more than 1,100 for a single soldier kidnapped in 2006.
The international pressure for Israel to agree to a sustained ceasefire continued to build this week after the UK and Germany called for one on Sunday. A UN Security Council vote is expected later on Tuesday, with diplomats hoping that the US — which has not yet called for anything longer than humanitarian pauses, including those that allowed the hostage swaps — will abstain.