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Israel & Hamas Agree to 4-Day Truce & Hostage Release as Netanyahu Threatens War on Gaza Will Go On

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Under the terms of a new hostage deal, Hamas will release 50 hostages who were captured in its October 7 attack in exchange for Israel releasing 150 Palestinian women and teenagers held in Israeli prison and agreeing to a four-day pause in fighting to exchange captives and bring urgently needed humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. The four-day pause could be extended if Hamas continues to release hostages, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Israel would continue its 47-day bombardment of Gaza that has killed 14,000 Palestinians. “This is a rare glimmer of hope,” says former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, who explains how this deal will shape Israeli politics and Netanyahu’s prospects moving forward. “The morning after this, he faces the music.”

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StoryFeb 07, 2024Former Israeli Negotiator Daniel Levy: Only U.S. Pressure on Israel Can End Gaza Assault, Lead to Truce
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel is continuing to attack Gaza ahead of the start of a four-day pause in fighting. Al Jazeera reports at least a hundred Palestinians were killed overnight in Gaza. The death toll from Israel’s 47-day bombardment has now topped 14,000.

As part of the truce deal, Hamas has agreed to initially release 50 hostages in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons. The four-day pause could be extended if Hamas agrees to keep releasing 10 hostages a day. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza are believed to be holding about 240 hostages seized during Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel.

According to the Palestinian group Addameer, Israel is now holding about 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners. That’s up from 5,000 before October 7th. More than 2,000 of the jailed Palestinians are being held indefinitely without charge. Palestinian news outlets have reported six Palestinians who were being detained without charge have died in recent weeks.

In Gaza, some residents welcomed the news of the four-day pause to the Israeli bombing.

ABU JIHAD ABU SHAMIEH: [translated] We hope this ceasefire will be good. We have been waiting for this ceasefire. We have been hoping for it. We pray for peace for all people so we can be done with all these challenges we are facing. We have been fleeing from one place to another. We hope the ceasefire will be good and that we will see positive solutions from this. We pray for ceasefire. We pray for people to live in peace so they can go back to their jobs and houses to have stability.

AMY GOODMAN: In Israel, families of the hostages called on the Israeli government to secure the release of everyone seized on October 7th. This is Nir Shani, whose 16-year-old son Amit is being held hostage in Gaza.

NIR SHANI: Any person will be released is good, is important. Eventually, we need them all. But if it had to be slice by slice, so be it. … We need to establish this release. The best thing is that everybody will be released at the same time, but, as I said, some can stay in that situation for a bit longer, and some will not be able to hold on, so we have to start doing the deals and get them back to us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Daniel Levy, the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He served as an Israeli peace negotiator under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. His piece for The New York Times earlier this month was headlined “The Road Back from Hell.”

We’re going to get to that in a moment, Daniel. Thanks so much for joining us again. But we want to start off with this deal that has been reached. We know a good deal about the horrific story of the hostages who are being held, that Hamas is holding or other groups in Gaza, about 240 of them. We know less about the Palestinian prisoners, the women and children. It’s going to be three to one. They will release 150 Palestinian prisoners for 50 hostage. Can you tell us about these people who are in prison? We don’t know specifically, though the Israeli government is releasing their names. But who is held in Palestinian jails? Who are these women and children?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, I think, Amy, that, first of all, let’s acknowledge this is a rare glimmer of hope. It will be very good to see those Israelis who will be coming home. It will be so important to have those four or five days without bombardment, without civilian losses in Gaza. It would be horrendous if we then return to where we have been in these past 40-plus terrible days. And [inaudible] to see those women and children coming out. I can’t speak to the names. We don’t know the names.

You mentioned the Palestinian organization Addameer. I suggest people look up that organization, which advocates on behalf of Palestinian prisoners. By the way, last government in Israel, the government of Bennett, Lapid, Gantz, super-extremists, as we’ve come to know the Netanyahu government, that organization was one of six Palestinian NGOs that was deemed criminal, terrorist by the Israeli [inaudible].

Israel has different ways of trying and convicting, or not convicting, Palestinians that it then holds in its prisons. The issue of child detention is something that Defense of the Child International has particularly drawn attention to, the number of children who end up in Israeli prisons, who go through military trials. Israel uses military courts. Women are part of the resistance, part of the struggle. Some Palestinians who [inaudible] are part of that struggle. Others are there on spurious accusations. And then Israel has a system of administrative detention, where it will hold people without trial. It will say — the security establishment will say to the courts, “This is too sensitive,” about [inaudible] information. And people can be held indefinitely under administrative detention. So, that’s the ways in which they are held.

As we’ve heard, more than 2,000 have been arrested — I think maybe two-and-a-half thousand — in the West Bank since the start, since October 7. So, we’re going to get some of those out now, the women and children. And I imagine if there are going to be further prisoner releases — if there are going to be further releases from Gaza, you will have exchanges of prisoners, of those Palestinians being held in [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel, we’re going to break and come back to you. We’re going to try to call you on the phone to get a better sound from your system. Daniel Levy is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former Israeli peace negotiator with the Palestinians at Taba under Prime Minister Ehud Barak and at Oslo B under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. We’ll be linking with him in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “We Rise” by Batya Levine, sung at many of the Jewish resistance protests calling for a ceasefire now. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former Israeli peace negotiator with the Palestinians. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Daniel, I wanted to ask you about the — just announced in the last few hours, this temporary — this truce. In an interview with The Guardian recently, you said, quote, “My sense is that the Israelis are always trying to get another day, and another day, and another day of operations before agreeing to a deal.” Because we’ve heard now of this potential truce now for two weeks, and each day we kept hearing that it was imminent, that it was imminent. But what has Israel been able to do during that time, while it finally reached and officially declared?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, Juan, unfortunately, the answer to that question is an awful lot of additional damage, civilian loss, children being killed. We’ve seen the devastation in hospitals in Gaza.

Now, I think the Israeli government was probably each day hoping it would buy the lottery ticket and capture one of the Hamas leaders, kill one of the Hamas leaders. The names Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif are the ones that spring to mind.

And — and I think this is crucial — why have they held out so long? I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the leadership understood that once you go into this new phase, where you’ve agreed an initial prisoner release, a few things happen. Some new dynamics come into play. On the Israeli side, internally, in the public debate inside Israel, people see that you can get people out through a negotiated deal. And I think Netanyahu is worried that that will increase the pressure on him to do further deals, to make these arrangements whereby you end the military assault. And he hasn’t wanted that because they haven’t achieved their military objectives, which are unachievable, by the way, and because he knows that the morning after this, he faces the music, and he is likely to be toast politically.

But, you know, other things will happen as a consequence of this. For instance, we may see more Western media using this lull to show us more of the devastation inside Gaza. In fact, there’s a report in Politico which says some in the administration are worried what these images may do to public opinion even more. So there’s real concern, I think, on the Israeli side that this sets in motion a dynamic which could end a war which they want to continue.

And I would say that the families have done so much of the heavy lifting inside Israel in changing the public debate and getting us to this point. I don’t think so much should be placed on their shoulders.

I think now — belatedly, because it should have happened long ago — is the time for the U.S. administration and others to step up and to desist from their opposition to a ceasefire, because it would be so cruel if after this we see a return of the kinds of assaults and bombings and losses on the Palestinian side in Gaza. And, unfortunately, in their statements that they put out recognizing this initial deal, neither President Biden nor Secretary Blinken did that, and they still actually fail to talk about Palestinian lives with empathy and to accord those lives humanity and dignity, which is such a sad thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you just said that you thought that the goals of Netanyahu are unachievable. Why is that?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, he has talked and talked about the elimination of Hamas. That is not a militarily achievable objective, in my mind. Hamas is a movement that has withstood this pressure, so I think there will still be — it may be somewhat residual, but a Hamas fighting capacity. But Hamas is a political movement. Hamas is an idea. I don’t want to lionize that, but I think we have to recognize that when people are met with a system of structural violence, they resist. That resistance may be in the form of Hamas. That resistance may be in the form of other armed groups. By the way, that resistance may be in the form of calling for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel. That resistance may be in the form of pursuing legal claims in international courts and elsewhere. If you close all of those avenues, then you’re much more likely to get the kind of outburst of violence and even the scenes which were horrific on October 7th. But Hamas will still be there the morning after. And groups like Hamas will still be there as long as the occupation and the system of denial of Palestinian rights is in place. There’s no military solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Levy, we reported yesterday on Mosab Abu Toha, well-known writer and poet — right? — who was taken for four days. Apparently, he was taken with about 200 people. Now, there was such an outcry in the United States, The New Yorker magazine, The Atlantic demanding his release. No one knew what had happened to him, the U.S. — sorry, the Israeli forces taking him at a checkpoint, that he was released. But when you have examples like that, I mean, the other 199, or however many were taken, did they then become part of the Palestinian political prisoners who then Israel can use to release in exchange for Hamas prisoners, not to mention how many hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested on the West Bank in the last few weeks? They haven’t been tried, have they?

DANIEL LEVY: Some have, and some haven’t, Amy. You’ve got some being held under what’s called administrative detention, which is basically detention without trial. I mean, my takeaway from that, amongst other things, Amy, is — let’s whisper it — pressure works. OK? So, if pressure can be built to get one person out, can it be built to get more out? Can it be built to end what’s going on in Gaza?

Now, you asked about the future prisoner releases. And that is why I think we need to understand that the overwhelming likelihood, as terrible as this is, is that at the end of this round of the agreement reached, Netanyahu has committed himself to resuming the military assault. By the way, in the statement he released, the first thing he talked about was not we’re getting our people home, it was his commitment: “I am going to continue this war.” That’s the first sentence. That’s the intention. And that’s why there needs to be maximum pressure exerted to build on this, because also let’s just think about the dynamics and the geography in play here. The Palestinian population has been displaced from the north of Gaza to the south. Israel now says that it intends to move from north to south. You have more people in a smaller area. Can anyone in good conscience make the claim that, going forward, there will be a reduction in Palestinian civilian casualties, in dead children? So, if the administration continues to refuse to call for a ceasefire, it is complicit.

Now, those future agreements, which I think are still the offramp to getting a ceasefire, will involve further prisoner releases. And so, the answer to your question, Amy, is that just as we have seen women and children being released now, hopefully in the coming days, from being held in Israel and being released from Israeli prisons, in the future there will be further deals, and Hamas is not going to drive a soft bargain. Hamas has this leverage by holding these Israelis. It intends to use that leverage. When it comes to the soldiers it is holding, I imagine the release that they demand from Israeli prisons will be very significant indeed.

And there’s a proper debate inside Israel. And thankfully, you have courageous families who are getting up in the parliament, shouting at the right-wing ministers, standing outside the Ministry of Defense, standing outside the Prime Minister’s Office, meeting with the leaders, saying, “Save lives. Don’t end more lives. Prioritize” — and this is going to be the debate, whether they prioritize the release of the Israelis, and therefore, that means we’re going to a ceasefire, and we’re going to see Palestinians released, or they prioritize prosecuting their war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Daniel, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the Netanyahu government and — the public opinion polls are showing that Netanyahu’s popularity is at an all-time low even in the midst of this war, far, far less, for instance, to the popularity of President Biden here in the United States. Is it your sense that regardless of what happens, that Netanyahu’s — with this war, that Netanyahu’s political career is coming to an end?

DANIEL LEVY: From your lips, Juan. It’s a risky thing to speculate on, because he’s such a political survivor. But I do think, this time around, the path to staying on in power for Netanyahu is almost, almost unimaginable. He is so unpopular. I think even some of the reservists who are fighting in Gaza are chomping at the bit to finish, so that they can demonstrate outside his office to get him out.

And here is the question that will follow in the coming days: Does even this pause begin to reignite politics inside Israel? Do we have to wait ’til the end of the war in order for Netanyahu to be replaced? There are open splits now, increasingly visible, inside the government. One of the most hard-right, openly racist and worst factions voted against the deal. Another intended to vote against the deal but pulled back at the last minute. We are likely to see some of the next five days, a lot of it will be filled with life-affirming images inside the Israeli media of Israelis coming home, but some of it will be now talk of what next. The opposition leader has called for Netanyahu to be replaced.

So I think we’re in a zone where that begins to come into view. But, to be honest, the most important thing is to get the ceasefire, and the politics can come when it comes. If we need to get rid of Netanyahu to get the ceasefire, then, of course, that order switches.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Levy, we thank you for being with us, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former Israeli peace negotiator with Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. We’ll link to your recent New York Times op-ed, “The Road Back from Hell.”

Coming up, we speak with an Israeli history teacher who was jailed for four days and held in solitary confinement after criticizing the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians. Back in 20 seconds.

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