Background of the Conflict
Tensions have been high between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza after months of clashes and military confrontations. In early January, Hamas captured two Israeli citizens who crossed into Gaza. Israel sees the capture of its citizens as an act of terrorism and has demanded their immediate release.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, has reportedly demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in exchange for the two Israelis. Previous prisoner swap deals between the two sides have involved Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinians in exchange for a few Israelis being held captive.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and numerous smaller battles over the past 15 years. The last major confrontation was an 11-day battle in 2021 which killed at least 230 people in Gaza and 12 people in Israel.
Escalating Crisis Prompts US Intervention
With the hostage crisis showing no signs of imminent resolution, the Biden administration decided to send in a high-level envoy to try and broker a deal.
CIA Director William Burns departed for Europe this week to meet with officials from Israel, Egypt and Qatar. The goal is to negotiate an Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which would facilitate the release of Israeli captives held by Hamas.
The rare high-stakes mission underscores the escalating crisis and the desire by the US to prevent another war between Israel and Hamas. Sending the CIA Chief also signals how vital freeing the Israeli captives is to the Biden administration.
“It’s a deeply worrying situation that risks deteriorating given the absence of contacts between Israelis and Palestinians,” said one European diplomat briefed on the initiative.
Previous Attempts at Brokering Deal
Egypt and Qatar have been trying to mediate a prisoner exchange deal over the past three weeks but have failed to make progress, prompting the need for US intervention.
Part of the challenge has been a strained relationship between Egypt and Qatar over their approaches to Hamas. Egypt officially labels Hamas a terrorist organization while Qatar has ties to Hamas’ political leadership.
Several lower-level attempts have already taken place in trying to broker a deal. Egypt sent a security delegation to Israel and Gaza earlier in January but it departed without any concrete progress. Qatar’s ambassador to Gaza also shuttled between Israel and Gaza.
Officials say with CIA Director Burns now involved, it raises the stakes and prospects of a deal as the Biden administration applies its weight behind the talks.
“The Americans saw that Egypt and Qatar work separately, decided that this division works against the possibility of progress, and brought Burns to coordinate mediation efforts,” an Israeli diplomat said.
CIA Chief to Meet With Netanyahu and Israeli Security Officials
The first stop on Burns’ trip is Jerusalem where he will meet with a number of top Israeli leaders and security officials to discuss the crisis.
Meetings are set with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Defense Minister Yoav Galant and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi.
Burns will also huddle with the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea. Barnea has been personally overseeing Israel’s efforts to secure the release of the two Israeli captives.
The Mossad Chief will travel together with Burns to Europe later in the weekend for talks with Qatari and Egyptian mediators. Their joint presence is meant to signal unity in the negotiations.
Israeli officials told reporters Burns will push Netanyahu and security brass to show “goodwill” gestures toward Hamas that could facilitate a prisoner swap. This could include easing restrictions on Gaza and allowing more reconstruction aid and development projects.
At the same time, Burns will tell the Israelis that the Biden administration fully stands behind their security concerns and will support military action if necessary.
“While we urgently want to secure the release of our boys held by these terrorists, we will not compromise Israel’s security to do so,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
Tense Negotiations With Qatar Expected
After departing Israel, Burns and Mossad Chief Barnea will fly to an undisclosed European city to meet Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.
Qatar is a key player in the mediation given their ties to Hamas. They also provide major financial assistance to Gaza.
But tensions erupted earlier this week between Israel and Qatar when Sheikh al-Thani gave an interview accusing Israel of intransigence over the prisoner swap and delaying allowing Qatari aid projects into Gaza.
Israeli leaders shot back that Qatar was being hypocritical for publicly attacking Israel while having contact with Hamas behind the scenes.
U.S. officials are hoping to smooth over the harsh rhetoric as it has added a layer of complexity to already fragile talks.
Analysts say expect tense negotiations between the Qatari leader and CIA/Mossad chiefs as they try to align positions. But the crisis has dragged on too long already.
“Both sides recognize the danger to civilians if the situation devolves back into armed conflict,” said Ibrahim Fraihat, a expert on mediation at Georgetown University.
Deal Contours Being Discussed
The contours of a possible ceasefire deal are already circulating. According to experts on Gaza and regional officials, it would likely involve the following:
- Gradual release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, potentially starting with women, children and those with health issues.
- Hamas releasing the 2 Israelis they hold. Perhaps in a phased approach if Israel releases prisoners in phases.
- Israel allowing more Qatari financial support and infrastructure projects inside Gaza related to water, electricity and hospitals.
- Egypt agreeing to permanently open border crossing with Gaza to increase access and trade.
In exchange, Hamas must commit to halt all rocket attacks and border violence targeting Israelis.
The prisoner release would happen in batches with the first batch likely to be around 250 Palestinians freed once the two Israelis return home.
Previous swap deals have been implemented in various gradual phases over months and years. Both sides are signaling a similar phased approach may be necessary.
One new factor is the Biden administration has committed to rebuilding U.S. relations with Palestinians and providing more humanitarian and reconstruction aid. That could facilitate program.
“There is a rare convergence of interests where all sides have incentive to deescalate,” says Ghaith Al-Omari at the Washington Institute.
Deal Far From Certain
While the heavy US involvement raises hopes, officials close to the talks warn a lot could still go wrong.
One complications is if there is any delay by Hamas in releasing evidence the Israeli prisoners are alive. That could prompt hawkish ministers in Netanyahu’s government to push for immediate military action before any deal progresses further.
Additionally, there is division within Hamas itself and among Palestinian factions in Gaza. Hardliners associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad have criticized Hamas’ leadership for even engaging in prisoner swap talks rather than continuing the fight against Israel. Managing those internal tensions adds a layer of uncertainty into the negotiations.
Finally, there is the chance of sabotage or even direct attack by militants opposed to any deal. That’s what happened in 2014 when three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed by a Hamas cell looking to subvert talks at the time.
All sides will be on high alert for potential spoilers aiming to derail progress.
What Comes Next?
All eyes remain fixed on this weekend’s talks between Burns, Barnea and Qatar’s leadership. They represent the highest level meeting so far.
If significant progress emerges, expect Egypt to invite negotiators from all sides to Cairo to finalize a prisoner exchange deal. President Biden and Secretary Blinken would likely get directly involved with phone calls at that final stage.
However, if talks stall and no serious momentum results, then the risk of military confrontation escalates again.
Netanyahu would face heavy pressure from his political rivals to launch a major operation inside Gaza to eradicate terrorist threats. That would return the sides to wider armed conflict.
For now, cautious optimism circulates in diplomacy circles. But the fate of hundreds of prisoners and possibility of all-out war hangs on the success of CIA Director Burns high-stakes mission over the coming days.
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