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US is thinking about practical rescue strategies for Gaza hostages.

by NAYEEMUR RAHAMAN
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Relatives, friends and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas militants in southern Israel, hold placards and images of those taken during a protest for their release in the central city of Modine, Nov. 16, 2023.

As negotiations to free a number of hostages in Gaza continue, the United States is keeping all options open, according to two American officials. It is actively developing plans with international partners for tactical recovery operations that could be used if it is determined they could be carried out with a reasonable level of risk. Additionally, the U.S. is playing a significant role in advancing talks between Israel and Hamas.

The United States, Qatar, and Egypt are helping Israel and Hamas in reaching an agreement to release a large number of the more than 200 prisoners that Israel estimates are being held. This may involve some of the ten Americans who are still missing after Hamas’s terror attacks on Israel on October 7.

Meeting with the emir of Qatar on Friday, President Joe Biden addressed “the urgent need for all hostages held by Hamas to be released without further delay.”

A senior State Department official stated on Friday that the United States remained doubtful that a deal would be struck, despite the push for diplomacy and rumors earlier in the week that both parties were close to coming to an agreement.

Multiple sources confirm to ABC News that Israel and Hamas are in talks about a deal that would release an unspecified number of Palestinian women and minors held by Israel and exchange at least 50 hostages, the majority of whom are women and children, for a multi-day truce. However, the parties have not yet agreed on the specifics of the deal.

Meeting with the emir of Qatar on Friday, President Joe Biden addressed “the urgent need for all hostages held by Hamas to be released without further delay.”

A senior State Department official stated on Friday that the United States was doubtful that a deal would be struck, despite the push for diplomacy and rumors earlier in the week that both sides were close to coming to an agreement.

Multiple sources confirm to ABC News that Israel and Hamas are in talks about a deal that would release an unspecified number of Palestinian women and minors held by Israel and exchange at least 50 hostages, the majority of whom are women and children, for a multi-day truce. However, the parties have not yet agreed on the specifics of the deal.

A senior administration official says that although Biden voiced different degrees of optimism throughout the week that a deal would be reached, Israel and Hamas have been close to reaching an agreement on several occasions in recent weeks, but that each time, the talks had fallen down in the closing stages.

Early in the fighting, officials stated that any focused attempt to physically retrieve hostages was unfeasible due to the conditions in Gaza. Although there is always a risk associated with recovery efforts and the United States thinks a brokered agreement is the best approach to secure most of the detainees, there are tactical preparations being devised in case things change, according to sources.

Since foreign forces have frequently carried out plans created in collaboration with their American counterparts in the past, U.S. military or law enforcement officials would not necessarily be involved in actually carrying out any such operation.

The unprecedented complexity of the Gaza hostage crisis—which involves a large number of people who are currently thought to be being held by Hamas and other terrorist organizations through various locations in the besieged enclave for more than 40 days—is reflected in the various possible courses of action that are developing concurrently against the intricate web of diplomatic negotiations.

Negotiations for hostage recoveries and hostage takings can get exceedingly complex due to a few different factors. “This hostage situation has them all,” said Danielle Gilbert, a political scientist at Northwestern University and member of the Bipartisan Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Gilbert cites the extreme mistrust between the parties, the paucity of information regarding the hostages’ well-being, and the possibility that Hamas will wish to hold a sizable number of detainees as leverage in future talks.

“Sometimes hostage-takers have in the past quite intentionally used an iterated nature of a negotiation to gather as many concessions as possible while retaining hostages as well — so they might negotiate some sort of swap and then only release a portion of the hostages that they are holding and continue to demand more to let more people go,” she continued. “So that is something probably both the kidnappers and target governments are thinking about: ways to ensure they won’t be taken advantage of in this way.”

Christopher O’Leary, the former director of the U.S. task force on hostage recovery, says that the situation is like none other he has experienced through the course of his career, but as it plays out, the U.S. and Israel will likely be able to piece together a more completed intelligence picture that can inform recovery efforts.

“There’s always multiple lines of effort being planned. There’s a recovery being planned from the second an American gets taken. Our special operations and intelligence units are collecting data and coming up with options for recovery and that is constant,” he said.

O’Leary, who is also senior vice president for worldwide operations at the intelligence and security consulting firm The Soufan Group, said, “The movement into Gaza actually aids in that.” “Battlefield evidence is being gathered, detainees are being detained, biometrics are being used, tactical interrogation is being conducted, and electronic devices are being misused for each block and apartment complex that is taken. All of that contributes to the intelligence picture in an effort to determine the possible location of the hostages.”

Even though O’Leary claims that these initiatives will go independently of talks, it doesn’t seem realistic that Hamas will ever consent to release some of the detainees, including IDF soldiers.

“I would be surprised if you didn’t see some form of hostage rescue for some of the members that aren’t getting negotiated out,” he stated.

When asked how many American hostages there are overall, national security advisor Jake Sullivan responded by telling co-anchor Jonathan Karl of ABC’s “This Week” that the United States does not have a “precise number.” Since October 7, Hamas has so far freed two American and two Israeli hostages.

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