ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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After meetings in Doha, families of hostages say Qataris ‘attentive, sympathetic’

Relatives argue a ceasefire will speed up talks, Qataris view hostage release as humanitarian goal; Qatar’s PM reportedly says killing of Hamas deputy chief complicates matter

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza who returned from talks in Qatar hold a press conference at Hostages Square, outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, January 7, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza who returned from talks in Qatar hold a press conference at Hostages Square, outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, January 7, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Families of the hostages who flew to Qatar and met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and other Qatari officials over the weekend said Sunday that their meetings in Doha were positive, in addresses given at Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square.

The remarks came after Thani reportedly told the families that talks with Hamas had been complicated by the killing in Beirut on Tuesday of the terror group’s deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri and several other senior members of the Gaza-ruling group, in a strike that has widely been attributed to Israel.

Families of six Israeli hostages held by Hamas traveled to Doha, which also hosts Hamas leaders, on Friday for meetings with officials.

The families went to Qatar because Hamas’s freeze of negotiations over the assassination is “killing the hostages,” said Daniel Lifshitz, grandson of hostage Oded Lifshitz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week asserted to relatives of hostages that talks for their return were ongoing.

“We met with the Qatari prime minister,” Lifshitz said. “It was important for them to directly hear the perspectives of the hostages’ families. The key message given to us in the meeting we held: that a ceasefire will speed up the advancement of negotiations to release all hostages.”

An aunt of hostage Shiri Bibas also said the Qatari government is committed to the release of the abudctees, and believes a temporary pause in fighting will accelerate the process of negotiations.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands during a press conference following a meeting in Doha on January 7, 2024. (Karim JAAFAR / AFP)

“They were attentive, familiar with our stories, and showed sympathy to us,” said Ruby Chen, whose son Itay Chen was abducted on October 7.

The Qataris view the hostage situation as a humanitarian crisis, and a top priority, Chen said, but “the gaps between the two sides are still large,” he added.

“We felt the Qatari government was committed to the goal of releasing all the hostages, and considers it [a mission] of the greatest humanitarian importance that will bring quiet to the region,” said Noam Perry, daughter of hostage Haim Perry, who called on the cabinet to put the release of hostages as a priority.

Hamas has said publicly it will not release any more hostages beyond the 105 freed under a November deal, unless Israel ends the war entirely.

Ronen Neutra, whose son Omer Neutra was also taken captive, said that the families of the hostages expect to receive an update on possible negotiations from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit on Monday.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with the families of soldiers taken hostage on October 7, vowing that the military operation won’t end until they are returned.

Gallant presented information on efforts being made to find and rescue them from captivity.

Israeli leaders have insisted it is growing military pressure on Hamas, and not a ceasefire, that will lead the terror group to a deal.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) meets with the families of hostages at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 7, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The trip marked the first time that families of the hostages have visited Qatar, which has been responsible for mediating hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas following the October 7 atrocities, when Palestinian terrorists from Gaza rampaged through southern Israeli communities, massacring some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping around 240.

It is believed that 136 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after the releases during the weeklong truce in late November brokered by Qatar. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered.

The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 25 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

The families of the hostages met with Qatari Minister of State at the Foreign Ministry Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al-Khulaifi, who heads the Qatari negotiations team, on Saturday and later with the Qatari premier, according to an Axios report.

It said that the Qatari PM told the visiting families that “it is more difficult to talk to Hamas after what happened in Beirut,” citing a Qatari official.

Qatar is “painfully aware of the suffering of the remaining hostages and their loved ones,” the Qatari official told Axios.

File: A man walks by posters of people held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, on January 4, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Qatar and Egypt have been trying to broker a new deal that would potentially see dozens more hostages freed in exchange for a pause in fighting.

“We have engaged directly with the hostages’ families to share as much information as possible, and to assure them that Qatar is committed to using every resource to secure their release. We will continue to engage with these families,” the official said, according to Axios.

“We are using every possible channel, and collaborating closely with our counterparts in the US and Israel…but Qatar is a mediator. It does not control Hamas,” the official said.

The official noted it was “increasingly difficult” to maintain the channels of communication open with Hamas following the “escalation of bombardment in Gaza and elsewhere, which candidly complicates the hostage negotiations.”

The official said Qatar would continue its communication with the hostages’ families.

Israel has remained mum on responsibility for the strike in Beirut Tuesday despite widespread speculation that it was behind the killing of Arouri.

On Wednesday, an Israeli official argued the fact that Qatar did not respond publicly to the strike was a positive sign for the continuation of talks.

“If they don’t announce anything, that is ultimately something optimistic,” said the official.

File: A picture taken from Rafah on January 6, 2024 shows smoke billowing over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli strikes, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Last week, prior to the killing of Arouri, Qatari mediators reportedly told Israel that Hamas had agreed “in principle” to resume negotiations for the release of more hostages in exchange for a truce of up to a month in the Gaza Strip, according to reports in the Hebrew-language media.

According to the Walla news site, the talks had remained centered on a proposal presented by Mossad chief David Barnea that would include the release of some 40 hostages, including women still held by Hamas, men over 60, and those with serious medical issues. In return for the hostages, Israel would halt military operations in Gaza for up to one month and release a number of Palestinian security prisoners.

A senior Hamas official went on to dampen optimism about a deal, insisting that the terror group was only interested in a deal that included a permanent ceasefire.

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