Hamas could release a significant number of Israeli hostages “in coming days”, Israel’s ambassador to the US has said.
Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, said Israel was hopeful a significant number of hostages could be released by Hamas “in coming days”.
His comments came after Qatar’s prime minister said only “very minor” details remained in a deal between Israel and Hamas.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al Thani said mainly “practical and logistical” issues remained, while a White House official said the “very complicated, very sensitive” negotiations were making progress.
Last week Reuters reported Qatari moderators had been seeking a deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange 50 hostages in exchange for a three-day ceasefire which would help boost emergency aid shipments to civilians in Gaza.
Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one and the bodies of two have been found near al Shifa hospital, where there had been heavy fighting.
On Saturday a senior White House official suggested a hostage release would need to be completed before large amounts of desperately needed aid could enter Gaza.
“A release of a large number of hostages would result in a significant pause in fighting … and a massive surge of humanitarian relief,” Brett McGurk, the White House’s National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, said.
More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, struggling to provide basic services to hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in and around schools and other facilities.
Their plight has worsened in recent days with the arrival of winter.
Over the weekend Israel allowed UNRWA to import enough fuel to continue humanitarian operations for another couple of days and to keep internet and telephone systems running.
The talks come as Israel prepares to expand its offensive against Hamas to Gaza’s southern half, with increasing airstrikes hitting targets Israel sees as lairs of armed militants.
However, the US has cautioned Israel not to embark on combat operations in the south until military planners have taken into account the safety of Palestinian civilians.
Gaza’s Hamas-run government said at least 11,500 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombardments, with another 2,700 reported missing and believed to have been buried under the rubble. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants – Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.
Around 1,200 Israelis have been killed, mainly civilians murdered during Hamas’s 7 October attack. The military says 52 Israeli soldiers have been killed.
The civilian death toll in Gaza was “staggering and unacceptable”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, appealing again on Sunday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy is making Labour’s first visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the war erupted and stressed “diplomacy is how we can secure the release of hostages” while protecting Palestinians.
“Hard diplomacy is required with all governments in the region to deliver a longer pause immediately to respond to the shocking humanitarian emergency in Gaza, secure the release of hostages so cruelly taken by Hamas and as a necessary step to an enduring cessation of violence,” he said.