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Qatar hostage mediators press Hamas on civilian releases: Report

Doha: Qatarimediatorsare urgingHamasto quicken the pace ofhostagereleasesto include women and children held in Gaza and to do so without expecting Israeli concessions, according to three diplomats and a source in the region familiar with the talks, as Israel readies a ground assaultonthe enclave.

The Gulf state, in coordination with the US, is leadingmediationtalks withHamasand Israeli officials over thereleaseof more than 200hostagescaptured in the Palestinian group’s cross-border onslaughtonOct 7.

HamasonMonday freed two Israelicivilianwomen captives from the besieged enclave following thereleaseof twohostageswith dual US-Israeli nationalityonFriday.

Qataris now discussing a largerreleaseofcivilianswithHamasand Israel, a fifth source told ReutersonTuesday after being briefedonthe negotiations. The source said the talks were progressing.

The talks are not about any of the Israeli soldiers held byHamas, the diplomats and regional source familiar with the talks said.Hamassays such captive soldiers are strategic assets the group can eventually exchange for major concessions from Israel.

In Washington, two US sources said that it was the US understanding thatQataris pushingHamastoreleasea large group ofhostagesimmediately and without expecting any Israeli concessions in return.

Some 222 people aged from 9 months to 85 years were seizedonOct. 7 whenHamasand other militants wentona killing spree through southern Israel, shooting motorists, hunting downciviliansincluding children in their own homes, and burning and stabbing people to death, according to survivors’ accounts.

Logistical challenge

In response, Israel has launched a bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 5,700 people, buried families in the rubble of their apartment blocks, maimed thousands and displaced a million people. It now plans a ground assault to destroyHamas.

Among the arguments three of the sources sayQatarmay be using in its contacts withHamasis thatreleasinga large group ofcivilianhostageswould ease a big logistical burden for the militant group as it navigates its confrontation with Israel.

Feeding and accommodating the captives, and tending to those who are wounded, are difficult forHamasat a time when it is bracing for an Israeli assault and there is little food or medicine to spare for Gaza’s 2.3 million population, the diplomats and source said.

Keeping track of the captives, held by several groups in various locations, makes this task even more onerous, three of the sources said.

A source in the region familiar with thehostagenegotiations said it appeared thatHamashad not anticipated taking so manyhostagesand had not made preparations for keeping so many individuals. Israeli officials have said many of the captives could be held in the warren of tunnels under Gaza.

When its fighters stormed into IsraelonOct 7, “Hamasdid not expect the operation would be as catastrophically successful as it was. Now they have all thesehostagesand they don’t know what to do with them,” the source in the region added.

Qatarhas also argued toHamasthat a largecivilianreleasecould reap diplomatic benefits by showing the group, seen as a terrorist organization by many Western countries, as sensitive to international humanitarian concerns over the captivity of children and other non-combatants, two of the sources said.

Captive soldiers

AHamasrepresentative inQatardid not respond to a request for comment. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli official saidHamaswas using thehostagecrisis for propaganda, trying to present itself as humane byreleasinga handful of people they kidnapped. The official described this as “Nazi psychological warfare”.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reportersonMonday that Washington wanted “to see all thehostagesreleased. We want to see themreleasedunconditionally, and we want to see themreleasedas soon as possible.”

Areleaseofcivilianswould still leaveHamasholding Israeli soldiers and security personnel.Hamasspokesman Osama Hamdan saidonSaturday the fate of Israeli army captives was related to a possible exchange of prisoners and in any case would not be discussed until Israel stopped attacking Gaza.

Qatar, which has ambitious foreign policy goals, has a direct line of communication withHamasand Israel. It has previously helpedmediatetruces between the two.

A US priority is to allow more time for negotiationsonthereleaseofhostages. But time may be running short.

The US has advised Israel to hold offona ground assault and is keepingQatarapprised of that effort as the Gulf state seeks tomediatefurtherhostagereleases, two sources in Washington briefedonthehostagenegotiations saidonMonday.

(Published 25 October 2023, 10:14 IST)

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