After 45 days of devastating war, Israel and Hamas have agreed a hostage deal and a pause in hostilities that marks the most significant diplomatic breakthrough of the bloody conflict.
The agreement was finalised early on Wednesday after weeks of complex negotiations brokered by Qatar, with input from the US and Egypt, and is likely to take force on Thursday.
What has been agreed?
The deal involves the release of at least 50 women and children held hostage in Gaza in return for a four-day halt to hostilities; the release from prison in Israel of 150 Palestinian women and children; and significant quantities of humanitarian aid, including fuel, for the territory.
Israeli hostages are to be released in batches of 10 to 12 over successive days. A similar schedule will see the release of the Palestinian prisoners once the first Israelis return home.
A plan to extend the pause in fighting has been discussed, on the condition of the release of another 10 Israeli hostages in return for each day of non-belligerence.
But almost 200 Israeli and foreign nationals will remain in captivity in Gaza despite the deal. Four women — two Israelis and two US citizens — were released last month by Hamas, and one Israeli soldier was rescued. The Israeli military alleges that at least two Israelis have been killed in captivity.
How does it affect Israel’s military campaign?
When it launched its ground invasion of Gaza, Israel made clear that it intended to bring the hostages home safely in addition to destroying Hamas as a military and governing force in the enclave. Military pressure would be crucial in compelling Hamas to negotiate even a partial hostage deal, officials said.
“The ground manoeuvre also creates better conditions for bringing back the hostages. It hurts Hamas, it creates pressure, and we will continue this pressure,” Herzi Halevi, Israel’s military chief, said on Tuesday after meeting troops inside Gaza.
The pause will allow Hamas to regroup after six weeks of Israeli air and ground bombardment. But Israeli officials have said they would resume their campaign once the truce is over and shift the focus to southern Gaza, where Hamas leaders are suspected to be hiding in underground tunnels. “A comprehensive military achievement will not be possible without addressing the south,” an Israeli official said last week.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was adamant on Tuesday, telling his government ahead of the final vote that authorised the hostage deal: “I want to make clear. We’re at war. And we’ll continue in the war.”
Will the aid to Gaza be sufficient?
A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Gaza, according to international aid groups. Much of the territory has been reduced to rubble by Israeli bombardment, while supplies of food, water, medicine and fuel have been severely restricted. Under US pressure, Israel has in recent weeks allowed an increase in humanitarian convoys, including fuel, to enter Gaza.
The need is dire, with more than 1mn Gazans displaced from the north and congregating in shelters, schools and tent cities in the territory’s south, doubling the population there.
One Israeli military officer said late last week that Israel would be willing to allow the entry of “hundreds” of aid trucks into Gaza a day, a move that the hostage deal may facilitate.
But even if the international community delivers sufficient aid, the biggest obstacle remains he co-ordination and distribution inside Gaza due to a lack of fuel.
How do Israelis view the deal?
The Israeli public overwhelmingly supports a deal to release hostages, according to polls. The families of captives have in recent weeks joined ever-larger marches in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demanding the government “pay any price” for the safe return of the captives. Posters with the faces of the hostages dot storefronts and highways nationwide, with the tagline: “Bring Them Home”.
But far-right ministers in Netanyhau’s coalition voted against the deal late on Tuesday night, arguing that it was a “bad” deal that did not ensure the return of all the hostages and decreased the chances of destroying Hamas, according to Israeli media.
How will Hamas present the agreement?
Hamas leaders have not officially reacted to the deal, although the militant group is expected to portray it as a significant achievement.
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, is believed by Israeli and western intelligence services to be handling the hostage negotiations. Sinwar was himself released in a prisoner exchange deal with Israel in 2011 — and vowed to fellow Palestinian inmates that he would secure their release.
In his only public comments since the war started, Sinwar said last month that Hamas was “ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal” with Israel, under which all the hostages would be released exchange for all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, estimated to be at least 6,000 people before October 7.
What were the most difficult parts of the hostage deal?
The negotiations were facilitated by the US and Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political office and has been liaising with the Islamist group. Disagreements between Israel and Hamas over the details and logistics stalled the deal for weeks.
Hamas initially sought a 10-day pause in Israeli bombardment, then five, before settling on a pause of four days with the possibility of an extension.
There were also disputes over the sequence, including whether Israel could use drones to monitor the hostage exchange; the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released; and where they would go.
The profound lack of trust between the two sides was the biggest hurdle — and could still undermine the deal’s implementation, analysts said.
Israeli officials said a ceasefire agreement during the 2014 Gaza conflict was violated by Hamas and used to capture a slain Israeli soldier. Talks for his return and that of another slain soldier remain inconclusive.
What about the remaining hostages held in Gaza?
The release of women and children by both sides was a lower bar than a comprehensive exchange. The release of foreign nationals, including Nepalese and Thai workers, may be possible in future. But securing the freedom of the remaining Israeli nationals — including active soldiers — will be hugely complicated.
Far-right Israeli ministers are loath to release all Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Security analysts said that if Hamas released all its hostages, then the Israeli military would also be less restrained in attacking the militant group’s underground tunnel complex.
Relatives of the hostages acknowledged that the deal was the best that was possible — for now.
“This is the best thing that can be done now . . . this is a first step,” Udi Goren, whose cousin Tal Haim was kidnapped from the Nir Yitzhak kibbutz, told Israel’s Kan Radio on Tuesday.
“Simply from my understanding [after this deal is done] Tal will be moved up in line for coming home. And that’s it. That’s the situation.”