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Diplomats trying to free hostages from Hamas aim to delay Israel's ground offensive

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There is ongoing international diplomacy to try to free hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and to get more aid into Gaza. Two elderly Israelis were released today. Meanwhile, Israel says Hamas has still been trying to launch attacks since the massive invasion of southern Israel October 7. And Israeli troops continue to bombard Gaza and amass troops on the border. International diplomats may be trying to delay a ground offensive to buy time to get hostages out and to contain the conflict. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about the latest. Hi there.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Michele, let's just start with those two hostages that we mentioned who were released today. What can you tell us about them?

KELEMEN: So Israeli media say that they're two women who are around 80 and 85 years old. They had been kidnapped from their kibbutz. Their husbands are reportedly still being held in Gaza. And this follows the release Friday of two Americans, a mother and daughter. But this is really still just a small number, Juana. Hamas is believed to be holding 220 hostages - children, men, women, the elderly and nationals of many countries. The U.S. says there are still 10 Americans missing. And National Security Council spokesman John Kirby says the administration is very focused on this.

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JOHN KIRBY: It is literally an hour-by-hour effort here at the White House and at the State Department to find out where these folks are and to try to make the effort to get them out and get them back.

KELEMEN: He also says there are several hundred Palestinian Americans who are trying to get out of Gaza as Israel continues to bombard the area. The U.S. has been trying to get them through a border crossing with Egypt, but Egypt is pushing for more aid to get in. The U.N. says only about 54 trucks have gotten in in recent days, but no fuel. And this is a drop in the bucket for what's needed. Palestinians say 5,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes. You know, there were 1,400 Israelis killed by Hamas.

SUMMERS: Michele, I mean, how much is the hostage diplomacy weighing on officials as they talk to Israel about preparations for a future ground offensive?

KELEMEN: Well, certainly family members want to give diplomacy more time. You're also hearing that from European diplomats. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is going to Israel this week, and the fate of French hostages will be on his agenda. You know, Juana, I talked to Christopher O'Leary, who used to be the director of hostage recovery for the U.S. government. He's now with a security consultancy called The Soufan Group. And he says the U.S. and others could argue for a delay. But he added this.

CHRISTOPHER O'LEARY: Hamas is playing a very deliberate, calculated game. This is part of their broader strategy. They are going to try to drag this out and change the narrative from what they did on October 7 to somewhat being victims.

KELEMEN: You know, the U.S. and Israel don't want to let Hamas buy time to rest and refit, as one State Department spokesman said today.

SUMMERS: And U.S. officials have been thanking Qatar for playing a role in these hostage releases. Help us understand how that Gulf state has become such a central figure here.

KELEMEN: So I asked O'Leary about this, too, and he called the Qataris exceptional partners. They played a role in getting Americans out of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrew, and they played a role in getting American detainees out of Iran more recently. And Qatar plays a really interesting role in Gaza. It has a lot of influence with Hamas because it's been helping to pay for salaries of public workers in Gaza over the years. There's a Hamas office in Doha. So when Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Qatar recently, he had to strike a balance. He said it can no longer be business as usual with Hamas. But he also made clear that he wants Qatar to keep open these channels of communication while Hamas continues to hold hostages. Qatar said it's ready to play that role, but it doesn't want to be attacked in public for dealing with Hamas, since the U.S. and Israel want these channels maintained.

SUMMERS: And, Michele, in the short time we have left, is the United States asking Israel to delay its ground offensive to allow for more hostages to be released?

KELEMEN: Well, officials won't say that publicly, but they are offering some words of caution behind closed doors with Israel. And there are other reasons why - not just the hostage situation. There's a big fear of regional blowback that could mean threats against U.S. embassies and military bases. So U.S. officials are talking about steps they're taking to beef up security in the region with aircraft carrier groups and with other forces to prepare for that kind of blowback.

SUMMERS: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.