Joe Biden says Hamas-Israel hostage deal is ‘very close’ to being finalized

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Joe Biden said Israel and Hamas were “very close” to a deal expected to free dozens of civilian hostages held in Gaza in exchange for a pause in hostilities and the release of Palestinian women and children who are detained in Israeli prisons.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday morning, the US president said the US had been “working intensively on this for weeks” and “we are now very close, very close”.

While Biden cautioned that he did not want to discuss “details” and “nothing is done until it’s done,” he said “things are looking good at the moment” — suggesting a breakthrough was within reach.

Biden’s optimism about a deal brokered by Qatar and the United States was echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Israeli troops that “I hope we get good news soon”.

Israel’s security and war cabinets will meet for an unscheduled meeting on Tuesday, followed by a gathering of the entire government that would be required to vote on any potential release of Palestinian prisoners.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Qatar-based leader of Hamas, also released a brief statement on Telegram, saying the group had “delivered its response to the brothers in Qatar and the mediators and we are close to reaching a ceasefire agreement”.

Qatar is brokering the hostage talks that could allow the release of as many as 50 civilians out of the more than 240 people held by Hamas in Gaza since the militant group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.

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In return, Israel will agree to a three- to five-day pause in hostilities and release as many as 150 Palestinian women and children held in its prisons, several people close to the talks told the Financial Times. The pause could potentially allow an increase in humanitarian aid, which Israel has strictly limited, into the besieged enclave.

Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has handled the logistics of previous releases, also met with Haniyeh in Qatar on Monday.

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The fighting in Gaza has continued, and Israeli troops are now operating near the barely functional Indonesian hospital near the northern edge of the strip. Nearly a dozen people died after an explosion at the hospital on Monday, local health officials said, while Israel said it responded to fire on its troops from inside the hospital.

The Israeli Defense Forces have also been fighting in the eastern parts of Gaza City. Pockets of Hamas militants remain within the city limits, which Israeli troops have encircled and penetrated since the country’s ground invasion began on 27 October.

The IDF estimates that it has eliminated two battalions of Hamas fighters while significantly degrading the capabilities of others, with its relentless aerial bombardment protecting its soldiers’ advance while destroying more than half of the buildings in northern Gaza.

Israel has besieged Gaza since the Hamas attack, which Israeli officials said killed about 1,200 people. Close to 13,000 people have been killed as part of Israel’s retaliatory bombing and invasion, according to Palestinian officials.

Separately, the Israeli army said it had released renowned poet Mosab Abu Toha, who had been detained at a checkpoint in Gaza as he tried to flee south.

Since the start of the war, Toha has published essays in the New Yorker and the Financial Times documenting the toll Israel’s bombing has taken on civilians and his family. He was named a 2022 finalist for the prestigious American National Book Critics Circle Poetry Prize for a collection of poems called Things you can find hidden in my ear: Poems from Gaza.

Toha was detained along with about 200 other people at the checkpoint on Monday, said a person familiar with his detention. He was traveling with his infant son, a US citizen, and his wife.

Israel had faced international pressure to explain his detention. The IDF said it was acting on intelligence “indicating a number of interactions with several civilians and terrorist organizations inside the Gaza Strip,” but provided no evidence for its claims.

In Lebanon, the state news agency reported a series of Israeli attacks near the border. Two journalists were among the eight killed, as well as an 80-year-old woman.

Reporter Farah Omar and cameraman Rabih al-Maamari, who worked for the pro-Hezbollah news network Al Mayadeen, were killed in a rocket attack near the town of Teir Harfa. A third civilian was also killed in the same incident.

File photo of Lebanese television reporter Farah Omar
Reporter Farah Omar, pictured, and cameraman Rabih al-Maamari, who worked for Al Mayadeen, were killed in a rocket attack near the town of Teir Harfa © Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanon and Israel have traded fire almost every day since October 7, but exchanges have recently increased in intensity, raising fears of a regional escalation.

Lebanon’s interim prime minister blamed Israel for the attack on the journalists, saying it was an attempt to “silence the media”. The Israeli military said it was investigating the incident.

Iran-backed Hezbollah said the killing of the journalists “will not go unretaliated” before firing guided missiles across the border in what it called “its first reaction”.

Footage taken by another journalist in the aftermath of the incident showed the Mayadeen team stationed in the garden of a building overlooking the border. During previous live broadcasts, Omar was seen wearing a protective vest marked “press”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom advocacy group, said nearly 50 journalists were confirmed to have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, most of them Palestinians in Gaza. More journalists have been killed in this war than were killed worldwide in 2022.