Some Americans will be among the first phase of hostages released by Hamas
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza could soon be reunited with their families. Just hours ago, the Israeli government voted to approve a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. That's the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip whose fighters attacked Israel on October 7. The deal includes the release of 50 hostages captured by Hamas in exchange for a four-day pause in fighting and the release of 150 Palestinian women and children held by Israel.
Brett McGurk is on the line with us to tell us more. He is the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. Good morning. This is welcome news on the eve of our Thanksgiving holiday.
BRETT MCGURK: Good morning, Michel. No, it is. It is. It's good news. And it's about five weeks of really painstaking work led by President Biden, who had 14 engagements with Prime Minister Netanyahu on this - a hostage deal discussed every time. He's spoken with President Sisi three times, the emir of Qatar about three times. And we've all been very much engaged on this. But I have to say, until we see the hostages come home, nobody here is sitting quietly.
MARTIN: I could understand that. Are Americans among the hostages who are expected to be released as part of this initial exchange?
MCGURK: What we anticipate - the first phase of this is 50 women and children. Hamas, after a lot of effort - and frankly, Hamas is under an awful lot of pressure - provided a list of 50 women and children that it says it is holding who are alive. And those 50 will come out. And we anticipate - and one of those will be a 3-year-old girl named Abigail. Her birthday is actually Friday. She'll turn 4 on Friday. And two other American citizens - adult women.
MARTIN: Do you have any sense of - or any information about - any intelligence about the condition of the hostages - the women and children, but, frankly, all of them?
MCGURK: Unfortunately, Michel, we have very little. We have very little. And part of the difficulty of this negotiation was that Hamas really insisted on a full cease-fire, in which case they then promised that they would release some hostages without any, even, guarantee. And so the demand was, we need some proof - identifying criteria for the women and children. So we're going to start there. And finally, we got that for the 50.
We anticipate - the way this deal is structured, it incentivizes additional releases. So 50 - the 50 women and children I mentioned will come out over the first four days, and it's four days of a full humanitarian pause. So all the fighting stops. We're likely to see a real surge of humanitarian assistance, which the cease-fire here enables. And then, for every additional 10 hostages that Hamas can release - of course, there's about - well over 200 - the pause will continue. So we'll see how this plays out.
MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. I mean, the - four days - and is that enough to assure aid workers and others that they can actually get hostages out safely and that they can get aid in? And as - you know, as I'm sure you know better than all of us - that there have been casualties, even in places where the civilians in Gaza were told to seek shelter. They were told to go south. And yet there's been massive destruction in the south. So the question is, do you think this pause is sufficient to assure all those - that conditions are met?
MCGURK: Well, I have to say, Michel, we are working. I just got back from the region. I was in Cairo, meeting with our USAID chief and others and David Satterfield, our humanitarian coordinator. We're working every day to get as much humanitarian aid into Gaza as possible, even separate from this deal. But the pause in fighting that we've been working to this point - the pause in fighting does enable those efforts to really increase significantly and set some things up that we have not been able to. Some border crossings we've been wanting to use, particularly to get trucks out of Gaza, have been under regular shelling from Hamas. So that will stop, and it should increase the flow. But four days is four days, so you can do more with more time. And the onus for more time right now is on Hamas. So if Hamas produces additional hostages - and they have given indications to Qatar and to the Egyptians that they will - they're prepared to do that - the pause here will continue.
MARTIN: Does this agreement - is it contingent upon the hostages being healthy - being unharmed?
MCGURK: Very good question. We negotiated very strongly - and I have to say this went on for some time - that the 50 in the first phase - these will be handed over - that they'll be alive and - I wouldn't say well. And I have a 5-year-old daughter, and it kind of is mind-boggling to even consider. It's just horrific...
MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely.
MCGURK: ...To consider all the children caught in this tragedy, but particularly a 3-year-old girl whose parents were murdered by Hamas on October 7.
MARTIN: It is. It is.
MCGURK: So I can't imagine the condition. But alive? Yeah, certainly.
MARTIN: And speaking of children, the Gaza Health Ministry says more than 13,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the Hamas attack on the 7, but that it also includes thousands of children. Is there more that the U.S. could do to protect these very innocent civilians, or to persuade Israel to do so - to take steps to protect them?
MCGURK: Certainly. We want to protect all innocent life. Hamas - we want to separate Hamas from the civilian population. It is extremely difficult when Hamas is using civilian infrastructure and, in its own words, uses the civilians of Gaza, effectively, to try to protect themselves. This is an extremely difficult endeavor. But with everybody working on this, honestly, from the president on down - I just saw him yesterday - Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, our whole team, Tony - it's a horrific human tragedy with all the human beings caught up in this. But we have to remind ourselves Hamas started this war. This would not be going on if on October 7, Hamas did not send about 2,000...
MCGURK: ...Terrorists across the border to murder 1,200 Israelis.
MARTIN: Brett McGurk is the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. McGurk, thank you for speaking with us. I do hope that you will have some opportunity to celebrate the holiday with your family.
MCGURK: Thank you so much, Michel. Happy Thanksgiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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