Hopes for a breakthrough in the Israel-Hamas war rose last night after sources said a hostage and ceasefire deal was the “closest it has been”.
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he expected “good news soon” on the release of captives in Gaza, following weeks of secret talks.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said a truce was “close” and talks mediated by Gulf state Qatar were said to be entering “final stages”.
It is the first glimmer of hope in the bloody conflict that began on October 7 and has claimed 15,000 lives, mainly innocent people.
If agreed, the deal could free as many as 50 of 240 civilians held by Hamas. In exchange, Israel would pause its ground invasion for up to five days and release Palestinians held in custody.
Sources close to the talks said a number of Palestinian women and children would also be released from prisons.
It could also let the biggest flow of humanitarian aid into the obliterated territory since Hamas terrorists entered Israel and slaughtered about 1,400 people in a dawn rampage seven weeks ago.
Qatari government spokesman Majed Al Ansari said: “We are now at the closest point we ever have been in reaching an agreement.
“We are very optimistic, we are very hopeful, but we are also very keen for this mediation to succeed in reaching a humanitarian truce.”
Israel believes at least 240 hostages of 20 nationalities, including 30 children, are being held.
Mr Netanyahu, who assembled his war cabinet last night, said: “We are making progress. I don’t think it’s worth saying too much, not even at this moment, but I hope there will be good news soon.”
The US, which has also had top-level private talks, said it marked the “closest we’ve been” to a hostage deal. President Joe Biden also stated an agreement was near.
The captives are believed to include Israeli-Irish girl Emily Hand, nine. She was initially feared to have been murdered but is now thought to be hidden in Gaza.
Her Dublin-born father Thomas, 63, called the news “a blessing”.
Earlier he said: “She must be saying, ‘Where’s my daddy? Where’s daddy?’. That’s what I’m living through – it’s a nightmare.
“She’s going to be broken, but we will have to fix that. Can you imagine what that poor little child is going through every single day, terrified for her life? Death in my head is an easier option.”
The October 7 raid by Hamas was the deadliest day in Israel’s 75-year-old history.
The state declared the terror network would be reduced to “rubble and dust” and immediately cut food, water and fuel supplies to Gaza. A ferocious aerial bombardment followed, then a ground invasion.
Israel has also targeted hospitals, saying Hamas uses them as terror bases. Gaza’s Hamas-run government claims at least 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, including at least 5,600 children.
Around two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been made homeless, with thousands moving south on foot.
Meanwhile, Israel continued its urban offensive in the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense warren of concrete buildings near Gaza City which has been without electricity, water or access to humanitarian aid for weeks.
Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters also clashed near the Indonesian Hospital. Palestinian health chiefs said a strike killed 12 on Monday.
Yesterday, Israel struck the town of Beit Lahia, reducing many buildings to rubble. Troops also displayed a stockpile of weapons found at the home of a terrorist and were seen taking blindfolded Palestinian captives out of the Gaza Strip.