Ahead of hostage release, PM says Mossad has orders to target Hamas chiefs everywhere

In televised press conference after cabinet okays truce deal, Netanyahu, Gallant, Gantz say fighting to continue until Hamas destroyed, all hostages freed

FILE - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz address a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
FILE - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz address a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Ahead of the expected start of a days-long lull in fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s leaders were adamant Wednesday that they would soon press on with their mission to demolish the terror group and its leadership.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv held alongside members of the war cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had “already instructed” the country’s Mossad spy agency to target the heads of Hamas “wherever they are.”

The premier said so after a reporter mentioned a Kan news report asserting that Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal are “euphoric” over the war and expect to continue ruling Gaza after it ends.

Asked whether the truce, which will last four days but could be extended by a few more, applies to targeting Hamas chiefs — a presumed reference to those abroad — Netanyahu said there was “no such obligation.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant weighed in to say all Hamas leaders were walking dead men. “They are living on borrowed time,” Gallant said of the terror chiefs. “The struggle is worldwide: From gunmen in the field to those who are enjoying luxury jets while their emissaries are acting against women and children — they are destined to die.”

Explaining the rationale for the hostage deal with Hamas, which will see the release of some 50 Israeli hostages — children, their mothers, and other women — Netanyahu said those held in Gaza had a “knife to their throats” and that it was Israel’s responsibility to rescue them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu said doing so was the fulfillment of the religious commandment to redeem hostages. He said this had been done throughout Jewish history through military operations, but that sometimes those were not possible. The premier described returning the hostages as a “holy mission.”

Netanyahu stressed that the security establishment unanimously supported the deal, asserting that it will not harm the military objectives, and could even advance them — though he did not say how.

The deal was widely expected, and reported, to go into effect on Thursday; Netanyahu, Gallant, and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz gave a lengthy press conference Wednesday evening on the merits of the imminent deal.

A Hamas leader also said the deal would take effect at 10a.m. on Thursday.

But in a surprise announcement late Wednesday, National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi said the deal would not go into force “before Friday.”

The deal set to unfold, as detailed by Israel’s cabinet, would trade 50 living Israeli hostages — children, their mothers, and other women in groups of 12-13 people — for a four-day lull in fighting and the release of up to 150 Palestinian female and underage prisoners. It would also enable an influx of fuel and humanitarian supplies to Gaza during the pause, a first since Hamas initiated war nearly seven weeks ago when its terror members rampaged through southern Israel on October 7 and massacred some 1,200 people, most of them civilians.

On the same day, more than 240 were abducted to the Gaza Strip by the terror group and other Palestinian factions.

An Israeli official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity late Wednesday explained the delay, saying that contrary to what was previously understood in Jerusalem, both Israel and Hamas need to sign onto a document ratifying the agreement for it to take effect.

People walk next to pictures of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Jerusalem, November 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The document will hopefully be signed within the next 24 hours, in time for the first hostages to be released on Friday, the Israeli official said.

The official also said that, contrary to an earlier report on Channel 12, which claimed that Mossad chief David Barnea received a list of the first batch of hostages slated for release, he does not believe one has been received yet either.

According to multiple reports, Barnea had the list in-hand Wednesday. He was in Doha with Gen. Nitzan Alon, who has held the hostage file for the Israel Defense Forces, and the two reportedly met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani to discuss the final details of the deal.

Israel will not be publishing the names ahead of their release to avoid any false hope among the families if the agreement falls through.

War to continue

In his address on Wednesday, Netanyahu said the army will use the multi-day truce to prepare for the resumption of the war. “All of our forces will be protected during the pause and intelligence collection will continue,” he added.

“The war continues. We will continue until we complete all of our goals,” Netanyahu said, listing those goals again as removing Hamas, returning all the hostages, and ensuring that whatever comes next in Gaza will not pose a threat to Israel.

He reiterated that he will not allow an authority that incites against Israel to return to Gaza, referring to the Palestinian Authority. This repeated assertion has angered the US, as Netanyahu has refused to offer any alternatives for who will govern Gaza and the rejection of the PA has turned off several Arab governments from contributing to day-after planning.

Netanyahu said the IDF “will restore security both in the south and in the north.”

He also recognized that “the victory has a huge price,” referring to the 70 soldiers who have fallen fighting in Gaza over the past month.

IDF troops operate inside Gaza during the ongoing ground offensive against Hamas, November 21, 2023. (IDF Spokesman)

Netanyahu said he had met with bereaved parents who told him that they want the IDF to “continue until the end, until victory” and vowed that that is what the army will do. He argued the combination of military and diplomatic pressure applied by Israel had led to improved terms in the hostage deal.

Netanyahu highlighted the ostensible inclusion of a clause in the deal that will allow the International Red Cross to visit the hostages who will not be released at this stage.

He noted claims from the Red Cross that it has not been informed of this clause and proceeded to read it aloud in Hebrew. The document he appeared to be reading from has not been published. A US official told The Times of Israel they were also not aware of such an agreement.

“The Red Cross is part of the agreement” — as agreed by Israel “and the other side,” said Netanyahu. “So I expect the Red Cross to act according to that clause” in the deal. “Hamas might not honor it, but it is unthinkable that the Red Cross won’t demand it… If the Red Cross didn’t know — it knows now.”

Diplomatic pressure

Netanyahu also said he spoke with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday whom he thanked for answering his requests to pressure Qatar to improve the terms of the deal.

A senior Israeli official briefing reporters earlier said that Biden sent CIA chief William Burns to Qatar to quash a Hamas demand to designate all Israeli women under 50 as soldiers, and instead to use that classification only for five women soldiers on active duty who are held by the terror group.

Netanyahu said the dual diplomatic and military pressure will continue after the multi-day truce and will improve terms for future deals until all of the hostages are returned home, including fallen IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul as well as civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed who have been held by Hamas for almost a decade as well.

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed (Flash90/Courtesy)

As detailed by Israel’s cabinet, the brewing hostage deal can be extended. If Hamas is able to locate additional hostages who are either minors or female non-combatants to release, the deal can be extended to up to 10 days, with one extra day’s pause in the fighting for every 10 hostages released. Three additional Palestinian prisoners would be released for each hostage freed.

The senior Israeli official who briefed reporters Wednesday said Israel believes that Hamas’s main interest in the negotiations was to maximize the duration of the pause in hostilities, and that fuel and humanitarian aid are not Hamas’s central concern.

Netanyahu said Wednesday he is sure Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar will try “to buy extra time” to prevent Israel resuming its Gaza operations after the hostage deal and pause.

Gallant said Hamas “wanted a pause to get some air while we’re pounding it daily. That’s what brought the achievement” of the hostage deal.

Asked about additional regional threats, Netanyahu said: “We are prepared for other developments too.”

On missile attacks from Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis, Netanyahu said “we are preparing to respond to all threats.”

Regarding Iranian proxy Hezbollah, which said it will participate in the truce even though it had no part in the talks, Netanyahu said he does not know what Hezbollah is saying, but Israel has not undertaken any obligations regarding Hezbollah and the northern front during the truce. Hezbollah will be judged by its actions, he said.

Smoke billows following an Israeli strike on the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Kila near the border with Israel on November 22, 2023, amid increasing cross-border tensions as fighting continues with Hamas terrorists in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

He also said, in the context of if Hamas breaches the truce, that “soldiers always are obligated to deal with any threat.”

Netanyahu declined to detail what will happen if Hamas breaches the truce, saying: “As President Biden said to me, an enemy that holds a 9-month-old baby hostage… we know with whom we are dealing.”

The “greatest threat to our existence” stems from the axis of evil led by Iran and Tehran getting a nuclear weapon would pose unimaginable dangers, Netanyahu said. He said he did many things to thwart this, “some of which are connected to the deal to release Gilad Shalit” but cannot elaborate further.

He said you “take a chance when you free evil people” and Israel “will do everything we can so that they won’t return” to harm people.” But if the deal works, “tens of kids and their mothers and women will come home — hopefully more than 50.”

Asked about the danger of released 150 Palestinian prisoners returning to terrorism, Netanyahu said Israel will go after them again if it has to.

All goals aligned?

In his address, Gallant said he insisted on an additional clause in the cabinet decision approved early Wednesday on the hostage deal, which states that once the multi-day truce ends, the IDF will continue its missions of eradicating Hamas and securing the release of all hostages.

He left out the third stated mission, which only Netanyahu has stressed in recent weeks — that Gaza will not return to being a threat to Israel after the war — in what appears to be a gap between the premier and other war cabinet members.

Whereas Netanyahu has used the third goal for the war to all but reject proposals for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza, Gallant and Gantz have only focused on the other two goals of the war — destroying Hamas and returning the hostages. Gantz and Gallant have also promoted steps to boost the PA.

Last week, Gantz said that returning the hostages was the more urgent mission in the short term, whereas Netanyahu has argued that the two missions are on equal footing.

War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Hamas only understands force,” Gallant said, calling the terror group “barbarians,” who would only improve the terms of the hostage deal if the military pressure against them increased.

Gallant said he is now feeling a combination of pain and happiness, as he thinks about the 50 hostages slated to be reunited with their families, along with the remaining ones, who will likely have to remain in Gaza for the time being.

He said the entire security establishment is bound by the obligation to secure the return of all the hostages.

Gantz reiterates his position that the release of the hostages is an “advance objective,” while the destruction of Hamas is vital “and will take a long time.”

Addressing Hamas’s leaders in Arabic, Gantz said, “We are a long-suffering and patient people.”

Israelis managed to build a state and an army after surviving the Holocaust and “we don’t think in days, but in eternity.”

Gantz said the hostage deal was one of the hardest decisions he has made over 40 years of service defending Israel, and added that additional difficult choices lie ahead.

Gantz also used the Tel Aviv press conference to threaten Hezbollah, which has already lost 79 members in the fighting along the northern border.

“What’s happening now in northern Gaza can also happen in southern Lebanon and Beirut,” Gantz said.

Addressing Iran, Gantz said, “We know how to [act toward those attacking] us, as well as to those who are sending them.”

“No harm to Israel’s sovereignty will go unanswered,” he declared.

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