Israel’s cabinet has approved a deal with Hamas to secure the release of fifty of the estimated 240 hostages held in Gaza. It was thought that the first prisoners would be exchanged at lunch time today but for some reason it has been delayed for 24 hours.
The hostages set for release under the terms of the agreement will be women and children. They will be freed over the course of a four-day pause in fighting.
The deal also states that for each extra day of a pause in fighting, a further ten hostages will be released. Hamas says, as part of the agreement, 150 Palestinian women and children being held without trial in Israeli jails will be released.
This temporary ceasefire will only offer the people of Gaza a respite from the bombings. As the world watches Gaza, the violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has skyrocketed. They are being attacked and murdered by emboldened settlers in increasing numbers.
This deal comes 46 days after the Hamas attack on 7th October, which resulted in the death of 1200 Israelis and the capture of 250 hostages. The ongoing brutal and retaliatory war declared by Israel on the people of Gaza has resulted in over 13,000 civilian deaths, according to Al Jazeera, many of them children, who have been buried under the rubble of what were once their homes. Over 27,000 people have experienced serious injury whilst the health care facilities have been systematically destroyed. The population is being deprived of power, food and water and over one million people have been displaced.
So, against this backdrop of immense suffering, any pause in the bombardment of the people of Gaza, if it goes ahead, must be welcomed. But we should also be asking why this sort of agreement was not reached earlier? Why was it necessary for so many innocent people to lose their lives and be subjected to such cruel and inhumane treatment before negotiation and diplomacy were put ahead of murder and revenge?
What seems to have been forgotten by much of the mainstream media is that Hamas offered to release the women and children it was holding in exchange for a cessation of the airstrikes on Gaza for six hours, as early as 24th October. Meshal, the Hamas official, told Sky News that, if Israel stopped its airstrikes in Gaza, Qatari and Egyptian officials would help find a way to have the hostages released. As has often been the case, Netanyahu’s reasons for refusing this initial offer are disingenuous. At first he said it was not a genuine offer and was merely propaganda. Israeli officials then suggested they refused because they did not want to create a precedent in which Hamas would release two hostages every time it wanted a ceasefire. They then said that ceasefires would allow Hamas to regroup and give the group’s leaders a chance to move from one hiding place to another without being targeted.
We then got a little nearer the truth when Israeli officials stressed that, even if a hostage deal was struck, the Israeli military would continue with its plans for a ground assault on Gaza. The plan was to destroy Gaza and its infrastructure. The crisis may have been the toughest Israel has ever faced but there is growing evidence that it is not just the lives of Palestinians that are seen as expendable, but also the lives of the hostages.
So, what has changed to allow a deal that will, if all goes well, see a prisoner exchange taking place today and a small pause in the attacks? It is unlikely that Netanyahu and his far-right government have developed empathy with the tormented people of Gaza, or even that his conscience has been pricked by the desperate situation the Israeli hostages are in. Any concessions are most probably driven by the fact that from the families of the Hamas captives to politicians in his own government, Netanyahu’s popularity is at an all time low. As the families of Israeli captives held in Gaza marched from Tel Aviv to Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on Saturday, he has never been less popular. A poll from 14th November has his popularity among Israeli Jews at about 4%, and both his opponents and traditional allies are calling for him to resign once the current attacks end.
He is clearly hoping that the return of some of the hostages will save his own skin.
He has no concern whatsoever for the skins of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who could have been saved or the fact that Israeli citizens held captive could have been safely released to their families’ weeks earlier. had he not been so focused on barbaric revenge.
But, of course, it is not just Netanyahu who is complicit. The active support and silence of our western leaders means, as Amnesty International’s secretary general said, “We should all have 13,000 deaths on our conscience.’