Inside the secret White House effort to secure the Hamas hostage release

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The deal to release 50 hostages being held by Hamas since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel came together after five weeks of intense negotiations involving the White House and Qatar, as well as Israel and Hamas.

The deal, which includes a pause in the fighting, was structured for women and children and is considered a first phase with an expectation for future releases. Among the 50 hostages being released, three are Americans, including two women and one child who will turn 4 years old on Friday.

Here is a look inside the secret effort by the White House to secure the release of these hostages.

In the days after Oct. 7

Qatari officials approached the White House and the Israelis on the issue of hostages, stressing that it will be a difficult process to get them released from Hamas, according to a senior administration official.

The Qataris asked that a cell, meaning a secret and small group of people, be established to work on the issue with the Israelis. President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan directed White House adviser Brett McGurk and top adviser Josh Geltzer to establish that cell, the official said.

The cell was treated with extreme sensitivity, and it ended up establishing processes to effectively reach Hamas directly, according to the official. Biden was “directly and personally engaged” in the process, and there was also a team on the ground working on the hostage release, the official said.

Oct. 13

Biden met the families of unaccounted for Americans and hostages via a Zoom call. Every family member spoke and shared their stories, the official said, outlining that one participant said her entire family was either taken or killed on Oct. 7.

Oct. 18

Biden traveled to Israel and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which he discussed securing the release of hostages and discussed humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

Oct. 23

Working through the cell that was established, American hostages Natalie and Judith Raanan were released. Their release led to a “very intensified process” for a larger release of hostages, and around the time, the Israelis delegated authority to negotiate to the director of Mossad, David Barnea, an official said.

Director of the CIA Bill Burns and Barnea began to speak “regularly” about contours of a deal from the Israeli side, an official said. Biden held calls with Netanyahu on this day, as well as the days surrounding it, and discussed hostages on the calls.

Over the following three weeks

The negotiation process turned detailed and technical, including everything from “corridors to surveillance to timeframes and total numbers,” an official said. Talks also included demands on Hamas to produce the list of hostages it was holding, identifying information, and guarantees of release. The communications were difficult because messages had to be passed from Doha, Qatar, to Cairo, Egypt, into Gaza and back.

On Oct. 25, McGurk spoke with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, known as MBAR. After the call, Biden was briefed and said he wanted to speak with MBAR. Staff got Biden on the line immediately, and they had a “pretty extensive discussion,” according to an official. The call took place when the phasing of releases began to take shape, with an emerging agreement to release all women and children in a first phase, together with a commensurate release of Palestinian prisoners from the Israeli side.

The White House agreed with the Israelis, who were insisting at the time that Hamas must ensure all women and children come out during this phase. The White House demanded, through Qatar, that Hamas give proof of life or identifying information for women and children held by Hamas, the official said.

Hamas, as a result, said it could guarantee 50 in the first phase, but it refused to produce a full list of identifying criteria. It eventually produced a list of 10, which the White House found insufficient, the official said.

Nov. 9

Burns met with MBAR and Barnea in Doha to go through the texts of the emerging arrangement, but the key hang-up was Hamas had not clearly identified whom it was holding, according to the official.

A U.S. official confirmed to The Hill that Burns met with the director of the Mossad and Qatari officials in early November.

Nov. 12

Biden called the emir of Qatar and said the stage that the talks were at “was not enough,” the official said. Biden said he needed identifying information for who was among the hostages Hamas would be releasing in the first phase.

“It was a very important and very intense call about where we stood,” the official said.

Shortly after that call, Hamas produced the identifying criteria for the 50 hostages, which were women and children, it said would be released in the first phase of any deal. An official said, due to the proof of life from Hamas, they are “confident that the 50 are there and will come out.”

Nov. 14

On a call, Biden urged Netanyahu that, because Hamas provided identifying information on the 50 hostages and some assurance on how many others may be held, they take the deal, according to an official. Netanyahu agreed “generally speaking” and the Israeli war Cabinet approved of a formula for a deal later that day.

McGurk, who was in Israel, saw Netanyahu that same day. Netanyahu urged Biden, through McGurk, to call the emir of Qatar on the final terms, an official said.

But, later that day, “everything stalled and communications with Hamas went dark,” the official outlined, meaning that Hamas stopped talking with people in Doha and Cairo who the White House was in touch with. Hamas broke off talks for “various reasons,” an official said.

Nov. 17

Biden, while in San Francisco, called the emir of Qatar when talks resumed. He told the emir this was the time that the deal had to close, an official said.

Nov. 18

McGurk met with MBAR in Doha to go over the text of the deal. The Qataris had just received comments from Hamas and they dialed in Burns to the meeting, according to an official. The meeting identified the remaining gaps to the deal, which later became a five-to-six-page detailed text structured on women and children.

Nov. 19

In Cairo, McGurk met with Egypt intel chief Abbas Kamel. During that meeting, they received a message from Hamas “closing the gaps,” an official said.

“It was really at that point that you can, I think for the first time, really see this coming together,” the official described.

After receiving the comments back from Hamas, the White House informed the Israelis, who approved “most of the deal but with some changes,” an official said. Over the following 48 hours, “minor implementation” details were finalized, according to the official.

Nov. 21

The Israelis moved the agreement through their system to approve of it. Once the final agreement was struck, the implementation of it is expected to start within 24 hours.

Laura Kelly contributed to this report.

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