The leader of Hamas said on Tuesday that a truce agreement with Israel was close, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped for good news soon about hostages, the most optimistic signals so far of a deal to pause fighting and free captives.
Hamas officials were “close to reaching a truce agreement” with Israel and the group has delivered its response to Qatari mediators, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement sent to Reuters by his aide.
Netanyahu said: “We are making progress. I don’t think it’s worth saying too much, not at even this moment, but I hope there will be good news soon,” according to remarks released by the Israeli prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu would convene his war cabinet from 1600 GMT “in light of developments in the matter of the release of our hostages,” his office said, followed by meetings of his wider security cabinet and the full cabinet.
A source briefed on the negotiations told Reuters the long-awaited agreement, which would see the first truce of the war and the first mass release of those held by both sides, was in its “final stages” and “closer than it has ever been.”
That was echoed by a U.S. official who said it was the “closest we’ve been” to a hostage deal.
The deal, as described by the first source, envisages the release of around 50 civilian hostages by Hamas and of female and minor-aged Palestinian detainees from Israeli custody, as well as a multi-day pause in fighting.
A Hamas official told Al Jazeera TV that negotiations were centered on how long the truce would last, arrangements for delivery of aid into Gaza and details of the exchange of captives. Both sides would free women and children, and details would be announced by Qatar, which is mediating in the negotiations, said the official, Issat el Reshiq.
Israel’s Channel 12 and Channel 13 TV stations both quoted unidentified officials as saying terms of a deal could be reached “within hours.”
Hamas took about 240 hostages during its Oct. 7 rampage into Israel that killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.
Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), met Haniyeh in Qatar on Monday to “advance humanitarian issues” related to the conflict, the Geneva-based ICRC said in a statement. She also separately met Qatari authorities.
The ICRC said it was not part of negotiations aimed at releasing the hostages, but as a neutral intermediary it was ready “to facilitate any future release that the parties agree to.”
Talk of an imminent hostage deal has swirled for days.
Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday that he hoped for an agreement “in the coming days,” while Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said that the remaining sticking points were “very minor.” U.S. president Joe Biden and other U.S. officials said on Monday a deal was near.
The Hamas raid on Oct. 7, the deadliest day in Israel’s 75-year-old history, prompted Israel to invade Gaza to annihilate the militant group that has ruled there since 2007.
Since then, Gaza’s Hamas-run government says at least 13,300 Palestinians have been confirmed killed, including at least 5,600 children, by Israeli bombardment that has turned much of Gaza, especially its northern half, into wasteland.
Around two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been made homeless, with thousands a day still trekking south on foot with belongings and children in their arms. The central and southern parts of the enclave, where Israel has told them to go, have also regularly come under attack.
A day and a night of rain and cold winter weather worsened the dire conditions in Gaza for the displaced, many thousands of whom are sleeping rough or in makeshift tents.
Gaza health authorities said on Tuesday at least 20 Palestinians were killed in Israeli bombing of the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza at midnight. There was no immediate comment from Israel.
The already crowded Nuseirat district, which grew out of a camp for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, is just south of the wetlands that bisect the strip and has been the arrival point for huge numbers escaping the fighting further north.
Bombing in southern areas leaves Gazans fearing they have no place safe to go. Neighboring Egypt has allowed the evacuation of some wounded and foreign passport holders, but says it will not accept a mass exodus.
“Continued bombing targeting displaced people in the South has a clear objective, and that is to force Gaza’s residents to leave the Strip,” Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman said on X. “Egypt has clearly declared its utter rejection of any enforced displacement attempt of Palestinians.”
Tens of thousands of civilians are believed to remain in the north despite an Israeli order to flee. All hospitals there have ceased functioning normally, many still housing patients and displaced Gazans. Israel says Hamas uses hospitals as shields for its fighters, which Hamas and the hospitals deny.
The World Health Organization said it was working on plans to evacuate three Northern Gaza hospitals: Al Shifa, Al Ahli and the Indonesian Hospital, lamenting this as a last resort.
“It’s robbing the entire population of the north of the means to seek health [care],” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a Geneva press briefing.
Issam Nabhan, head of the nursing department of the Indonesian Hospital, where the WHO and Gaza authorities say 12 people were killed on Monday by Israeli fire, told Al-Jazeera on Tuesday there were 60 dead bodies on the grounds.
“There is no oxygen to supply the patients. All those on artificial respiration have died. We speak out to the free world. The Indonesian hospital has become a cemetery, not a hospital.”
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Emily Rose in Jerusalem, Andrew Mills in Doha, Steve Holland in Washington and Reuters bureaux; writing by Idrees Ali, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Peter Graff; editing by Cynthia Osterman, Simon Cameron-Moore, and Alex Richardson)