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Will the brokered cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas have lasting impact?


Israel and Hamas have begun a four-day cease-fire as the backdrop for an exchange of captives. The Israeli Foreign Ministry says Hamas today handed over to Egypt 12 Thai hostages who were seized during the deadly October 7 attack on Israel. Now, this appears to be an additional release, apart from the roughly 50 Israelis who were expected to be set free under an agreement brokered by Qatar, with support from the United States and Egypt. That deal, seven weeks in the making, was described as a major diplomatic breakthrough. But what will its lasting impact be? And why this staggered approach to the release of captives on both sides? I spoke with Jonathan Panikoff. He's a former U.S. intelligence officer and director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

JONATHAN PANIKOFF: The reason for the staggered approach is that it will help ensure confidence on both sides. In other words, there's obviously a fear by Hamas that if they released the 50 Israeli hostages or foreign hostages, depending on the makeup of the group, would Israel actually go ahead and release all their hostages? Would the cease-fire hold and vice versa? If Hamas releases some and Israel releases some now, then I agree it gives both sides greater confidence and allows for there to be ensured that both sides will keep to their words and their commitments that were made in the Doha document.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. It's agonizing for families, though, that have to wait and see over the next few days. It's been nearly eight weeks, though, since the Hamas attack. What's been the biggest challenge in negotiating this hostage release?

PANIKOFF: Well, first of all, it's not a direct negotiation, as you said, because it's going through Qatar. It's taking some time. It means Qatar is really going back and forth between Israel, between Hamas, between the U.S., between Egypt. And so that obviously adds quite a bit of time. But also just on the ground, facts have changed things. So Israel's military actions have changed the timing that Hamas and Israel were engaging for a time. And then Israel stepped up actions, including at Shifa Hospital lately. Conversely, Hamas had taken actions early on and kept pushing off negotiations. It wouldn't give a list of who was being held originally to Israel. So there's been a number of challenges on both sides that have had to be worked through.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think if Israel had not responded in the way that it has, that we might have gotten here quicker?

PANIKOFF: No, I don't. I think a lot of the holdup was really on the Hamas side. I think, obviously, on the ground had an impact. But I think Hamas dragged its feet, which has been a long-held strategy over the years by the group. You'll remember that they held a former Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for over five and a quarter years. And Israel had to trade over a thousand people, including 280 serving life sentences, back in 2011 to get him out. So Hamas is very, very comfortable having the hostages. It's used to having the hostages. It views it as the best leverage that the group has.

MARTÍNEZ: How did Qatar get involved in all this?

PANIKOFF: Qatar has long been wanting to play a role and has been playing a role throughout the region as a mediator. Qatar is such a small state, a population of about 300,000, second-highest GDP per capita in the world. It feels that it can use, frankly, its position not only in the region but globally to be a mediator. And it has done so now for a number of years on a variety of conflicts. Hamas has been reliant on Qatar to transfer funds to the group for a number of years. That was part of an Israeli strategy. And with Israeli acquiescence, the goal was to keep things in the Gaza Strip at a slightly low-simmering level, enough funds for Hamas to stay in control and to keep things calm. Obviously, that strategy did not work, but they've had a long relationship with Hamas because of that.

MARTÍNEZ: Jonathan, quickly, what are the chances this pause can become permanent?

PANIKOFF: I think it's probably unlikely. The reality is nothing about this pause does anything to ensure Israel's long-term term security. And that's what its military goals are being used for. So in the end, I expect that you'll see, unfortunately, resumption of fighting at the end.

MARTÍNEZ: Jonathan Panikoff is a former U.S. intelligence officer and director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Middle East Program. Jonathan, thanks.

PANIKOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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