The prime minister of Qatar has said he hopes there will soon be a breakthrough in negotiations led by the Gulf state to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, although his government has warned that an Israel invasion could jeopardise those efforts.
“There is some progress and some breakthrough and we remain hopeful,” said Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani at a press conference in the Qatari capital.
“If they are able to get along between the two parties I think we will see some breakthroughs hopefully soon,” said Al Thani, who is also the minister of foreign affairs.
Officials from Qatar’s foreign ministry have said an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would complicate efforts to free the hostages.
“Obviously a land incursion into Gaza would make it difficult to maintain the safety of the hostages, and in our efforts at mediation with both sides we urge all parties in this conflict to de-escalate immediately,” said Majed Al Ansari, the foreign ministry’s spokesperson.
The Israeli military acknowledged that the presence of more than 200 hostages in Gaza was having a direct bearing on operational decisions.
“Hostages are a core concern of the operation and they are influencing operational conditions as we speak. We intend on bringing them home,” Peter Lerner, a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), told the BBC.
Following the release of four hostages in recent days, Qatar is now discussing a larger release of civilians, according to diplomatic sources. The talks do not include Israeli soldiers who are being held hostage.
The release of four female captives over the past few days will have provided Israeli military intelligence officers with valuable information. However, there is no guarantee that all hostages being held in Gaza are being kept in the same conditions.
Israel estimates that 222 people aged from 9 months to 85 years were seized on 7 October when Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel, murdering hundreds of people including children.
Such a large group of civilian hostages presents a logistical burden for Hamas, which is thought to want to keep them alive to maintain their value in negotiations.
At least 22 hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to Hamas officials. Others need medical attention, food and water when the Gaza Strip is running desperately short of basic materials and goods.
The hostages are thought to be held by different groups, not necessarily under Hamas control, and in different locations in Gaza. Their captors may be moving them around to avoid the risk of detection and bombardment, making it difficult for Hamas leaders to keep track of them.
One source in the region familiar with the hostage negotiations said it appeared that Hamas had not anticipated taking so many hostages and had not made preparations for keeping so many individuals.
“Hamas did not expect the operation would be as catastrophically successful as it was. Now they have all these hostages and they don’t know what to do with them,” the source said.
Qatar is attempting to persuade Hamas that a large civilian release could reap diplomatic benefits by showing the group, proscribed as a terrorist organisation by many western countries, to be sensitive to international humanitarian concerns over the captivity of children and other non-combatants, Reuters cited two sources as saying.
The IDF has been preparing for a ground invasion for more than two weeks, building up troops and tanks in a military zone in southern Israel from which civilians have been evacuated.
A woman and a man in Tel Aviv hold placards of one of the Israeli hostages held by Palestinian militants since 7 October. Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Relatives of people being held captive are demanding that Israel’s political and military leadership prioritise the release of hostages over the aim of eradicating Hamas.
Many are holding round-the-clock vigils, lobbying politicians, and publicising their loved ones’ captivity on billboards, social media and mainstream media.
A significant number of hostages have dual nationality, meaning other governments – including the US, UK and France – are also pressing for their citizens to be released.
Reuters contributed to this report