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Hostages are top of mind as Israeli and Hamas negotiators meet to discuss a ceasefire

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this piece reporter Jane Arraf incorrectly says that almost 40,00 “civilians” have been killed in Gaza. In fact almost 40,000 people have be killed in Gaza but the numbers provided by the Gaza Health Ministry don’t breakdown how many were civilians.]

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Israeli and Hamas negotiators are meeting in Qatar to discuss a potential cease-fire in the 10-month-old Gaza war. One of the key issues is the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. But Hamas says it doesn't have all the hostages. NPR's Jane Arraf sat down with a Hamas official in Beirut today and has more.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: We meet Ahmed Abdul-Hadi in the Hamas offices in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The hostages are understandably a huge deal in Israel, where many families have been pressing the Israeli government to agree to a cease-fire to get them back. Israel says it believes Hamas still holds about 100 people seized after the militant group stormed the border last October.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Hebrew).

ARRAF: Hostages, particularly the soldiers, are Hamas' biggest bargaining chip. Abdul-Hadi said, because some of the civilians were seized by different groups or even individuals, they don't know exactly where they all are.

AHMED ABDUL-HADI: (Through interpreter) The officers and soldiers - we hold them in a place no one knows. But the civilians, because not all of them are with us - some are with other factions, and some are with families - we don't know their exact whereabouts.

ARRAF: It's something we hadn't heard before - that some Gaza civilians who crossed the border after the Hamas attack took Israeli hostages they still keep. Abdul-Hadi said many of those families had relatives in Israeli prisons and are hoping to trade them. Because of that, he said, they were believed to be treating the hostages well. President Biden announced the cease-fire proposal in May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's a road map to an enduring cease-fire and the release of all hostages.

ARRAF: The first phase of a cease-fire would include an exchange of hostages and prisoners. Israel holds about 8,000 Palestinian security prisoners and detainees, more than 1,000 of them from Gaza, according to an Israeli human rights group. Israel would free a fraction of those. It has insisted on vetoing the release of 100 high-level prisoners and anyone else with more than 15 years left in their sentence. Hamas has said that's unacceptable. But Abdul-Hadi told us that there could be room for negotiation.

ABDUL-HADI: (Through interpreter) With the flexibility we have shown, the position could turn into, no, this one, this one, and this one, we want. Their refusal is prohibited. Maybe for other names, we could be flexible.

ARRAF: The prisoners Israel says it won't release include those serving life sentences. Among them, Abdul-Hadi said, is Marwan Barghouti, a popular potential leader in any future Palestinian entity. In the last nine months since Hamas launched its shock attack, which it calls Al-Aqsa Flood, Israeli airstrikes have essentially destroyed Gaza. Almost 40,000 Gaza civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed by attacks and many others by untreated disease. Was it worth it, I ask?

ABDUL-HADI: (Through interpreter) The Palestinian cause was being ended and liquidated by the extremist Zionist government. And normalization was proceeding rapidly at the expense of Palestinian rights. It was a forgotten issue. The Al-Aqsa Flood made it cause No. 1 in the world.

ARRAF: Abdul-Hadi said the Palestinian-Israeli peace process decades ago had resulted in nothing. For a liberation movement, he said, there's always a price. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY AND FLO SONG, "HIDE & SEEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.