Middle East

Exclusive: Israel’s spy chief proposed Hamas leaders leave Gaza as part of broader ceasefire talks

By Alex Marquardt, CNN

CNN  —  Israel has proposed that Hamas senior leaders could leave Gaza as part of a broader ceasefire agreement, two officials familiar with the ongoing international discussions told CNN.

The extraordinary proposal, which has not been previously reported, comes as Israel has struggled to achieve its stated goal of completely destroying Hamas. Despite its nearly four-month war in Gaza, Israel has failed to capture or kill any of Hamas’s most senior leaders in Gaza and left around 70% of Hamas’ fighting force intact, according to Israel’s own estimates.

Though it would give safe passage out of Gaza for top Hamas leaders who orchestrated the October 7 attack, draining Gaza of its leaders could weaken Hamas’ grip on the war-torn area while also allowing Israel to continue tracking down high-value targets abroad.

Senior Hamas officials are known to live in Doha, Qatar, and the Lebanese capital Beirut, among other places outside the Palestinian territories. An Israeli airstrike earlier this month killed a top Hamas commander in Beirut.

Israel’s suggestion that Hamas leaders could leave Gaza, though unlikely to be accepted by Hamas, has been discussed as part of broader ceasefire negotiations at least twice in recent weeks — once last month in Warsaw by Israel’s intelligence chief, Mossad Director David Barnea, and then again this month in Doha with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to one official familiar with the discussions.

It also comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity to try to achieve an extended break in the fighting and free hostages believed to still be alive in Gaza. The White House’s top official for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, is traveling to Egypt and Qatar this week for further talks.

American and international officials familiar with the negotiations have said that Israel and Hamas’ recent engagement in talks is encouraging but that a deal doesn’t appear imminent.

Pressure on Netanyahu

Pressure is building on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver some kind of resolution. The “complete victory” over Hamas that he has called for is a long way off, by his own admission. Meanwhile, anger among Israelis has grown over the inability of the government to bring home the more than 100 hostages being held in Gaza.

Israel is “not achieving their military objectives,” says Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That, combined with the “enormous pressure” on Netanyahu and his government to bring hostages home, Miller said, has created a situation where Israel would be willing to propose having Hamas leaders leave Gaza.

TOPSHOT - A picture taken from a position in southern Israel along the border with the Gaza Strip on January 19, 2024, shows an Israeli tank rolling along the fence as damaged buildings are see in the Gaza strip amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

“I think they’re simply bumping up against against reality,” said Miller. “And hostage families are beginning to exert tremendous influence.”

In addition, international sentiment toward Israel has soured over its continued bombardment of Gaza, which has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

For the past two months, the Biden administration has been openly calling on Israel to transition to a lower-intensity phase of the conflict, which US officials argue has started happening, though intense operations continue in southern Gaza.

Proposal ‘would never work’

The proposal for Hamas leaders to leave Gaza was raised in Warsaw in December by Barnea, Israel’s top intelligence official when he met with US CIA Director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, who has acted as an intermediary with Hamas. The official familiar with the discussions in the meetings said it was then brought up again when Blinken was in the Qatari capital earlier this month.

Israel's Mossad Director David Barnea speaks during the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) World Summit in the central coastal city of Herzliya on September 10, 2023. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

In that meeting Blinken was told by al Thani that the Israeli idea “would never work,” the official said. In part because of distrust by Hamas that Israel would in fact end its operations against Hamas in Gaza even after its leadership left.

A second official, from the Middle East, was told about Israel’s proposal by the US.

The US State Department, CIA and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office all declined to comment.

While it’s unclear whether in private discussions Israel has named which Hamas leaders they would hope to leave Gaza, there is no bigger target than Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ top official in Gaza. Sinwar is a “dead man walking,” Netanyahu and others have said.

Sinwar spent two decades in Israeli prisons and is originally from Khan Younis in southern Gaza, where the bulk of Israel’s operations in Gaza are currently focused. Israeli and US officials have said they believe Sinwar could be hiding out in the vast, deep network of tunnels under the city, Gaza’s second biggest.

His closest confidantes and aides are Mohammed Deif, the leader of Hamas’ armed wing, along with Deif’s deputy Marwan Issa. Sinwar’s brother Mohammed is also a senior Hamas commander. None are believed to have been found or killed by Israel.

Last month Israel dropped leaflets on Gaza offering rewards of hundreds of thousands of dollars for information on the Hamas leaders, including a $400,000 reward for information on Sinwar.

“The goal is bringing down Hamas as the ruler in the Gaza Strip,” said Ofer Shelah, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“There is no difference if [Sinwar] dies, or if he leaves,” Shelah said. “If he dies, then somebody could take over much in the same way. If we bring all the hostages back and Sinwar leaves, definitely that would make most people in Israel feel that we’ve won the war.”

American officials believe it is highly unlikely Sinwar and those around him would agree to leave Gaza, preferring instead to die fighting their sworn enemy.

Israel vows to hunt Hamas globally

Israel has made no secret of its intention to continue hunting Hamas leaders long after the war is over.

Netanyahu said in November he had “instructed the Mossad to act against the heads of Hamas wherever they are.” Ronen Bar, the director of Israel’s domestic security agency Shin Bet, has vowed to “eliminate Hamas” around the world, even if it takes years.

“Everywhere: in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Qatar, everywhere,” Bar said in a recording aired in early December by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan.

Sinwar could perhaps be convinced to leave, Miller argued, if Israel were to agree to an “asymmetrical” trade of many times more Palestinian prisoners held by Israel than Israeli hostages.

“I think he would only consider it in the event the Israelis also agreed to free all of the Palestinian prisoners,” Miller said.

“Whatever the Israelis agree to, Sinwar must know that they’re going to try to kill him,” he added. “Weeks, months years.”

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