US seeks to extend Gaza pause to get more hostages out
CIA Director Bill Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, and the Egyptian spy chief met with Qatari mediators in Doha on a possible broader hostage release deal Nov. 28.
The White House said today that it would like to see the current pause in the Israel/Hamas conflict extended to get more hostages out and more aid in.
CIA Director Bill Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, and the Egyptian spy chief Abbas Kamel huddled with Qatari mediators in Doha on a possible broader hostage release deal today (Nov. 28), on the fifth day of a humanitarian pause that saw ten Israeli and two Thai hostages freed by Hamas.
“We want to see all the hostages out,” NSC spokesperson John Kirby told journalists on Air Force One en route to Denver this evening (Nov. 28).
“And so we're going to keep working with Israel, with Qatar, with Egypt, to see if we can extend this [pause] more, because even after tomorrow, …there's still going to be a pretty good-sized pool of hostages that Hamas has, and we want to see if we can get them all out,” Kirby said.
Under the existing Qatari-mediated hostage/pause deal, originally set to expire on Monday but extended for two more days, some 61 Israeli hostages have been freed to date over the past five days, while three times that number of Palestinian prisoners, all women and minors, have been released from Israeli prisons and allowed to return to their homes.
There are still at least eight Israeli children being held as hostages in Gaza, including a ten month old baby, Kfir Bibas, and his four year old brother, Ariel Bibas, along with their parents. The family were reportedly kidnapped by Hamas from their home on Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel during the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, then transferred to the control of another Palestinian militant group, the PFLP, in Gaza.
Two Israeli American women hostages are also still being held in Gaza, who the U.S. administration had earlier expected to be released as part of the existing Qatari-mediated deal.
“No Americans, unfortunately, got out today, but we’re hopeful,” the NSC’s Kirby said. “Tomorrow’s another day, and we certainly hope that we can see more Americans come out.”
“We want to see all the hostages released, and so if there can be extended pauses, beyond these two days, then…we’re in favor of that. And we’re going to keep working on this…hour by hour with all out partners in the region.”
Kirby said the United States does not have perfect visibility into where the hostages are being held in Gaza, and suggested that Hamas may not be directly holding the small number of American hostages in Gaza, estimated to be ten or fewer. “We can’t assume that Hamas has ready access to everybody at a moment’s notice, or that all the Americans are held by Hamas,” he said. “But we know Hamas can get to all the hostages if it wants to.”
Israel had previously offered to extend the ceasefire for 24 hours for every ten Israeli hostages released, for up to ten days. Today an Israeli official indicated to Axios that Israel was willing to extend the current pause for up to nine more days, if Hamas released at least ten hostages every day.
An Israeli podcaster said Qatar and the spy chiefs are discussing a possible extension of the current pause. Hamas is reportedly offering the release of elderly men, fathers of released children, young people who had been attending the music festival last month, female soldiers and the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers, Shaeil Ben-Ephraim, host of the Israel Explained podcast, wrote on Twitter.
Extending the pause
As to whether the U.S. administration would like to extend the current pause to secure the release of more hostages and get more aid into Gaza, or might prefer to quietly encourage Israel to ease into a longer term ceasefire, Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said both.
“Both, at the same time, in the sense that they certainly want to extend it as much as possible,” Telhami, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution as well as Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, told me.
“They know that the humanitarian situation [in Gaza] is a disaster,” Telhami said. “Even aside from the hostages, the longer you extend it, the better.”
The US administration has “a policy disaster on their hands,” Telhami continued. “Right now,…they just don’t know how to get out of it without a longer pause. But at the same time, I really do think that there are divisions within the administration. There is still a school of thought that still agrees with Israel that quote, ‘it shouldn’t stop until Hamas is destroyed,’ whatever that means, that some people have bought into. That probably includes the President and maybe some people around him. A lot of people would disagree with that, who think that that’s not an achievable goal, and that perhaps it’s time to think about a long-term ceasefire.”
“So I think both are going on at the same time,” Telhami said. “They’re testing the waters.”
It is not currently clear what criteria Israel will use to define victory in Gaza, said Randa Slim, with the Middle East Institute.
“If the Americans can help shape the Israeli calculus about what victory means, and make the release of hostages as being the primary success criterion, I think then there is hope,” Slim said.
“But still, I don’t think the Israeli military will go for it,” she said. “I think the problem with this is that the Israeli military feels humiliated, feels angry. It's a personal thing for them. And they are, in my opinion,.. feeling the need to take revenge. Because they feel personal humiliation for the failure of predicting this”-- the Hamas massacre of over 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7.
“It can’t happen”
If the pause does expire and Israel resumes fighting in southern Gaza, where over two million people are currently sheltering, senior US administration officials stressed that Israel simply cannot conduct the campaign in the south the way it did in the north.
“You cannot have the sort of scale of displacement that took place in the north replicated in the south,” a senior US Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists Monday. “It will be beyond disruptive. It will be beyond the capacity of any humanitarian support network…to be able to cope with.”
“It can't happen, which means that the manner of the campaign has to be extremely carefully thought through to minimize this consequence of further, significant displacement,” he said.
Moran Freibach, the agriculture manager of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, said in an interview this week his kibbutz had gotten three of its five hostages back on Sunday in the current pause/hostage release deal, but he is still missing two more being held, including his neighbor and coffee buddy, Tsachi Idan.
“We have got to rebuild,” Freibach says of his kibbutz, Nahal Oz, located about a mile from the Gaza border. “We will need a lot of help by the way….But we are we are going to get back, to get strong.
The Hamas attackers on Oct. 7 “took all the tractors from the kibbutz, burning the tractors that they couldn't take,” Freibach said. “So we will need to buy new tractors now. Of course, we will need to buy everything, everything from scratch. But ok, we are willing to do it. We will make it better.”
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