On October 7, shortly after Hamas militants took the hostages during a surprise attack on southern Israel, the Qatari government contacted the White House with a request to form a small group of advisers to participate in efforts to reach an agreement for their release. .
The work, which began in the days following the hostage-taking, finally yielded results with the announcement of an exchange agreement brokered by Qatar and Egypt and ratified by Israel, Hamas and the United States.
The covert efforts included the intense diplomatic involvement of US President Joe Biden, who held several emergency talks in the weeks leading up to the deal with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It included hours of grueling negotiations involving US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, CIA Director William Burns, National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan and his deputy, John Feiner, US Ambassador to the Middle East Brett McGurk and others.
Two officials involved in the negotiations provided detailed details of the effort that led to a deal that saw 50 hostages released in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners during a four-day temporary cessation of hostilities.
After Oct. 7, Qatar, which has long held mediation efforts in the troubled region, contacted the White House with critical information regarding the hostages and the possibility of their release, both officials explained.
The Qataris asked for the creation of a small group, which they called the “Cell,” to work secretly with the Israelis on the issue.
Sullivan ordered McGurk and another National Security Council official, Josh Keltzer, to form the team.
Both officials said this was done without informing other relevant US agencies because Qatar and Israel demanded absolute secrecy and limited access to the matter.
McGurk, a seasoned diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East, was in contact every morning with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman bin Jassim Al Thani, who briefed Sullivan on details and kept Biden informed of daily developments.
Biden spoke directly to the suffering caused by the Hamas operation during a long and emotional meeting on October 13 with the families of Americans who have been kidnapped or whose fate is unknown.
A few days later, Biden traveled to Tel Aviv for talks with Netanyahu on October 18.
In addition to humanitarian aid, securing the release of hostages was a key focus of Netanyahu and his discussions with the Israeli emergency government, the official said.
Five days later, on October 23, the White House team’s efforts led to the release of two American hostages, Natalie and Yehudith Ranan.
From near his office in the West Wing, Sullivan, McCurg and Viner followed, moment by moment, as the two hostages made the grueling, hours-long journey out of Gaza.
Both officials indicated that the return to the United States confirmed the possibility of freeing the hostages, and gave Biden confidence that Qatar could achieve this through the small group formed.
Hence, intensive operations to extract more hostages began. Burns began speaking frequently with Mossad director David Barnia.
Both officials said Biden saw an opportunity to free a large number of hostages and that reaching a deal on the prisoners was the only realistic way to end the fighting.
On October 24, as Israel was preparing to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, news arrived that Hamas had agreed to the terms of a deal on the release of women and children on the US side, which meant a cease-fire and a delay in the ground invasion.
US officials debated with the Israelis whether to postpone the ground attack.
The Israelis said there were no specific terms for delaying a ground attack because there was no evidence the hostages were alive.
Hamas said it could not determine who the kidnappers were until a ceasefire in the fighting began.
The Americans and Israelis considered Hamas’s position deceptive. The official said the Israeli invasion plan has been modified to support a ceasefire if an agreement is reached.
Over the next three weeks, Biden entered into detailed negotiations that included plans for the two sides to potentially exchange the release of abductees.
Hamas was asked for lists of hostages it had taken, information on their identities and guarantees for their release.
Officials said the process was long and tedious, that communication was difficult and that messages had to be relayed from Doha or Cairo to Gaza, and vice versa.
As things began to take shape, officials said Biden had a previously undisclosed phone call with Qatar’s prime minister.
Under the deal, which was being drafted, it was agreed to release Palestinian prisoners and as a first step the release of women and children hostages.
At this point the Israelis demanded that Hamas release all women and children. The US side has agreed with Qatar to provide evidence that the women and children abducted by Hamas are alive or have information about their identities.
Hamas said it would release 50 people in the first phase, but declined to provide a list of conditions. On November 9, Burns met with the Emir of Qatar and Bahrain in Doha to discuss the texts of the new agreement.
A key obstacle at that point was the lack of clear identification of whom Hamas had abducted.
Three days later, Biden called the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and asked for the names of the fifty hostages or specific information about their identities, including the age, gender and nationality of each of them.
Without this information, there is no basis to move forward, the official said.
After Biden’s call, Hamas provided details of 50 hostages who would be freed in the first phase of any deal.
Biden urged Netanyahu to accept the deal in a phone call on November 14, and Netanyahu agreed.
McGurk met with Netanyahu the same day in Israel. After leaving the meeting, Netanyahu grabbed McGurk’s hand and said, “We need this deal,” and urged Biden to approach the Qatari emir about the final terms, an official said.
The talks failed due to a communications blackout in Gaza.
When it resumed, Biden was in San Francisco to attend a summit of nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Officials said he called Qatar’s emir and told him it was his last chance, and the emir promised to press for the deal.
“The President insisted that the deal be done now. Time has passed,” an official said.
On November 18, McGurk met with the Prime Minister of Qatar in Doha. Burns got in touch after talking to Mossad. The meeting discussed the last remaining gaps in order to reach an agreement.
The deal so far has been to release women and children in the first phase, but with the expectation that others will be freed in the future and that all hostages will be returned to their families.
McGurk met with Abbas Kamel, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, in Cairo the next morning. Hamas leaders in Gaza reportedly accepted all of the agreements reached earlier in the day in Doha.
Officials said the only issues remaining were the number of hostages to be initially released and the final shape of the deal.
A flurry of further communications followed until finally an agreement was reached.
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