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Hamas-Israel conflict: how are hostage negotiations going?

Étienne Dignat is a doctor in political science and author of The Ransom of Terror.

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Hamas-Israel conflict: how are hostage negotiations going?

Étienne Dignat is a doctor in political science and author of The Ransom of Terror. Governing the hostage market at Presses Universitaires de France (2023).

LE FIGARO. - An agreement on the release of hostages, kidnapped by Hamas on October 7, has “never been closer,” said a White House spokesperson. The terrorist movement speaks of a truce that is “coming closer”. What do we know about the ongoing negotiations?

ÉTIENNE DIGNAT. – We have been hearing for three weeks that an agreement is getting closer. We must remain cautious because we are here in a period characteristic of hostage releases: we are blowing hot and cold with fragmentary information, while the negotiations always seem to stumble over a final complication. There may be complications in form – an actor stiffens – or in substance – what concessions are there on either side? – or about logistics – how do you gather hostages in a war zone and then transport them?

As for concessions, I notice that Hamas varied between the releases of women and children, demands for fuel and even the demand for a ceasefire. It's difficult to see clearly.

In 2011, the Franco-Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. Is this a precedent that could be replicated?

This has actually been going on for decades. We have to go back to 1985, with the “Jibril Deal”, which allowed the release of three Israeli soldiers in exchange for 1,150 prisoners, to see the first traces of these exchanges, which then multiplied.

Also read “To negotiate, it is the link established with Hamas that matters”: the release of hostages in Gaza, a complex diplomatic process

However, it is difficult to draw a parallel with the current situation because the situation has changed. Firstly there are more than 200 hostages, including civilians, where in the past we were talking about one, two or three soldiers. The scale of previous exchanges, deeply unequal with 1 against 500 or 1 against 1000, will not be able to be regained.

The other problem is the sensitivity of Israeli society. Security fear has spread at the same time as confidence in the intelligence apparatus has deteriorated. Under these conditions, the Israeli executive will have difficulty releasing dangerous profiles like that of Yahya Sinwar. Exchanged in 2011 while serving four life sentences, he has since become the leader of Hamas in Gaza and one of the architects of the October 7 attack. The release of Palestinian women or children, as requested by Hamas, would appear more acceptable in this sense. But, once again, the situation is unprecedented and we are not immune to a surprise.

What are the red lines for both sides?

The notion of a red line should always be handled with caution when talking about negotiations. In the Israeli case, we notice that the red lines have always been pushed back. The Jewish state, for example, set up a “Shamgar commission” at the end of the 2000s, supposed to set the terms of future negotiations with Hamas and Hezbollah. Among them, there was the need to stick to “one for one” and no longer exchange Israeli bodies for living Palestinians.

What are the stakes in the release of the hostages for Israel and Hamas?

Several levels must be distinguished. First of all, Israel is founded on a very strong protection contract – for civilians as well as for soldiers – which makes it impossible to abandon hostages. In the case of civilians, the Israeli state is accused of failing to provide security as it should and it is therefore its responsibility to make amends for its citizens who were kidnapped. In the case of soldiers, I remind you that there is compulsory military service in the country. It is based on a tacit commitment from the army to Israeli parents to “watch over (their) children”.

Then, the Israeli government is playing on the credibility of the approach adopted in recent weeks. A strong choice was made, that of carrying out a land operation. It was widely said at the time that this amounted to giving up on the hostages. I never believed in it because history shows us that it is possible – and even common – to strike with one hand and negotiate with the other, once you have gained an advantage. We will see in the coming weeks if this strategy has paid off from the Israeli point of view, but Benjamin Netanyahu will have to get out of the ambiguity: is he in a military headlong rush or is he capable of negotiating? Will these hostage releases, if they occur, mark the beginning of a search for a political solution, in one form or another?

Finally, for Hamas, the stakes are high. He seeks to prove that he is not simply in a defensive position, which consists of enduring Israeli attacks, but that he can also obtain concessions. We must not underestimate the effect that the release of Palestinian prisoners would have on the image of Hamas within its population and vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority. As is often the case, it is about power relations, symbols and leadership.

Why does Qatar have an important role in this negotiation?

Qatar has had a tradition of hostage negotiations for years. He did this for example on behalf of the Americans with al-Qaeda, Daesh or more recently Iran. It is the country that speaks to everyone, including the “unfriendly”, and which has good networks. Furthermore, this intermediary is very convenient for Westerners, who today find themselves in a very uncomfortable position: if they negotiate, they are accused of compromise and complicity; if they refuse, they are accused of insensitivity to the fate of their own citizens.

Also read: Houthi rebels open a new front against Israel in the Red Sea

This is why today we are witnessing this fool's game which allows us to keep up appearances while seeking to obtain releases. Everyone benefits, including Qatar, which maintains good relations with Hamas and ensures that the West is accountable. This may seem cynical but it is the realpolitik of the hostage world.

What is the role of the Red Cross?

The Red Cross is a facilitator because of its extensive experience in hostage exchanges and its historical position of neutrality. In this case, it has an essentially logistical role, which consists of fetching the hostages and bringing them back to safety, but which turns out to be essential.

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