Shortly after the Hamas group took captives during their deadly assault on southern Israel on October 7, the government of Qatar contacted the White House with a request: Form a small team of advisers to help get the captives freed.
That effort, which began in the days after the captives were taken, finally bore fruit with the announcement of a truce mediated by Qatar and Egypt and agreed by Israel, Hamas and the United States.
Here is how it unfolded, as pieced together by Al Jazeera. Some of these details are based on Reuters interviews with two US officials.
- On October 7, Hamas fired a huge barrage of rockets into southern Israel, with sirens heard as far away as Tel Aviv and Beersheba.
- As the attack was unfolding later in the day, Israeli media reported armed men seized captives in Ofakim.
- Palestinian Islamic Jihad said it was holding Israeli soldiers, and Hamas social media accounts showed footage appearing to show captives being taken into Gaza.
- One video showed three young men in vests, shorts and flip-flops being marched through a security installation with Hebrew writing on the wall. Other videos showed female captives and Israeli soldiers being dragged from a military vehicle.
- Israel responded by starting a weeks-long bombardment on the Gaza Strip.
Diplomatic responses to the October 7 attack
- Qatar, a close US ally, approached the White House shortly after October 7 with sensitive information regarding the captives and the potential for their release, officials told Reuters.
- The Qataris asked that a small team, or a “cell”, be established to work on the issue privately with the Israelis.
- The secretive effort included tense personal diplomatic engagement by US President Joe Biden, who held a number of urgent conversations with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weeks leading up to the deal.
- Sullivan directed McGurk and another National Security Council official, Josh Geltzer, to establish the team. This was done without telling other relevant US agencies because Qatar and Israel demanded extreme secrecy with only a few people to be in the know, the officials said.
- According to Reuters reports, US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk held daily morning calls with the prime minister of Qatar, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani. He reported back to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Biden was briefed daily on the process.
- Biden got an upfront look at what the victims of the Hamas attack endured when he held an emotional, lengthy meeting with the families of Americans who were either being held captive or were unaccounted for.
- “They’re going through agony not knowing what the status of their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, children are,” he said. “You know, it’s gut-wrenching. I assured them of my personal commitment to do everything possible, everything possible” to ensure the Americans’ return.
- Biden travelled to Tel Aviv for talks with Netanyahu. The official told Reuters that securing the release of captives was a central focus of his discussions with Netanyahu and his war cabinet, as was humanitarian assistance.
- Qatari and Egyptian mediation leads to the release of two elderly Israeli women. Yokheved Lifshitz and Nurit Yitzhak, also known as Nurit Cooper, were released on “humanitarian” grounds, according to Hamas.
- The 85-year-old Lifshitz said at a news conference on Tuesday that she was hurt during the abduction but was treated well during captivity. Both women’s husbands remain captive.
- Five days later, the White House team’s work helped yield the release of two American captives, Natalie Raanan, 17, and her mother, Judith, 59.
- From outside his West Wing office, Sullivan, the US Middle East envoy McGurk, and Sullivan’s deputy Jon Finer tracked in real time the captives’ difficult, multi-hour journey out of Gaza.
- They were transferred to Egypt through the Rafah crossing with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They met with Israeli security forces in Egypt and were transferred to a military base in Israel to be reunited with their family.
- The return of the two Americans proved it was possible to gain freedom for captives and gave Biden confidence that Qatar could mediate the release of more people, officials said.
- Now, an intensified process started to get more captives out. CIA Director Bill Burns began speaking regularly with Mossad Director David Barnea.
📢 We facilitated the release of 2 more hostages, transporting them out of #Gaza this evening.
Our role as a neutral intermediary makes this work possible & we are ready to facilitate any future release.
We hope that they will soon be back with their loved ones.
— ICRC (@ICRC) October 23, 2023
- Israel was poised to launch a ground offensive in Gaza, the US side got word that Hamas had agreed to the parameters of a deal to release women and children, which would mean a pause and a delay in the ground invasion.
- US officials debated with the Israelis whether the ground offensive should be delayed.
- The Israelis argued that terms were not firm enough to delay since there was no proof of life for the captives. Hamas claimed they could not determine who was being held until a pause in fighting began.
- The US and Israeli governments viewed the Hamas position as disingenuous. An unnamed official told Reuters that Israel’s invasion plan was adapted to support a pause if a deal came together.
- Israel steps up its ground attack on Gaza three days later, on October 27.
- According to the Israeli military, a fifth person, a soldier, Private Ori Megidish, was rescued on October 30 during a ground raid inside Gaza.
- Abu Obeida said the soldier was not held by the Qassam Brigades, and it was possible she was held by civilians or individual parties in Gaza.
- Over the next three weeks, Biden engaged in detailed talks as proposals about a potential captive release were traded back and forth. Demands were made that Hamas produce the lists of captives it was holding, their identifying information, and guarantees of release.
- The process was long and sometimes seemed to move painfully slow – communication was difficult, and messages had to be passed from Doha or Cairo into Gaza and back before being relayed to Israel and the US, according to officials.
- “Every step of this is like pulling teeth,” one official said at the time, according to a report by CNN.
- Biden held a previously undisclosed phone call with the Qatari prime minister when the phasing of releases began to take shape, the official told Reuters.
- Under the agreement that was taking shape, women and children captives would be freed in a first phase, together with a commensurate release of Palestinian prisoners from the Israelis.
- The Israelis insisted Hamas ensure all women and children come out in this phase. The US side agreed and demanded through Qatar a proof of life or identifying information for women and children held by Hamas.
- Hamas said it could guarantee 50 in the first phase but refused to produce a detailed list of the captives.
- CIA director Burns met in Doha with the Qatari leader and Mossad’s Barnea to go through the texts of the emerging arrangement.
- The key obstacle at that point was that Hamas had not clearly identified who it was holding.
- Three days later, Biden called the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and demanded to know the names or clear identifying information for the 50 captives, including ages, gender and nationalities.
- Without the information, the official told Reuters, there was no basis to move forward.
- Shortly after Biden’s call, Hamas produced details for the 50 captives it said it would release in the first phase of any deal.
- According to Reuters, Biden called Netanyahu and urged him to take the deal. Netanyahu agreed.
- McGurk saw Netanyahu that same day in Israel. Walking out of a meeting, Netanyahu grabbed McGurk’s arm and said that “we need this deal” and urged Biden to call the emir of Qatar on the final terms, one of the officials said.
- Talks stalled as communications went dark in Gaza.
- When they resumed, Biden was in San Francisco attending an Asia-Pacific summit. He called the emir of Qatar and worked with him to apply pressure on Israel and Hamas to close the deal, officials said.
- US Middle East envoy McGurk met in Doha with the Qatari prime minister. CIA director Burns was dialled in after he spoke with Mossad. The meeting identified the last remaining gaps toward a deal.
- The agreement was now structured for women and children to be freed in the first phase but with an expectation for future releases and the aim to bring all captives home to their families.
- In Cairo, McGurk met with Egypt intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in the morning. Word came from Hamas leaders in Gaza that they had accepted nearly all the agreements worked out the day before in Doha.
- Only one issue remained – the number of captives to be released in the first phase and the ultimate structure of the deal to incentivise releases beyond the 50 known women and children, the officials said.
- A flurry of additional meetings ensued, and the deal finally came together.
- On November 22, Israel and Hamas agreed to a temporary pause in the war that would enable the release of the captives.
- Before the meeting to discuss the deal, Netanyahu thanked Biden for his work to include more captives and fewer concessions in the agreement.
- “It took significant US pressure to get this deal done, which really tells you what it’s going to take in terms of US pressure to get something more permanent in place if not a transition to Palestinian self-rule of some kind,” James Dorsey, an honorary fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.