‘Without further delay’: Calling Qatari Emir, Biden steps up pressure for hostage deal

Israel said to reject proposed deal that would separate mothers and children, insists Gaza terror groups release them together; Hamas warns Israel not to drag its feet

US President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office of the White House, January 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
US President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office of the White House, January 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The United States has stepped up pressure on Qatar to secure the release of some 240 hostages being held by terror groups in Gaza, amid reports that Israel is balking on an initial, partial deal that would keep some mothers in Gaza while their children went free.

US President Joe Biden held another call Friday with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and pressed him on the “urgent need” for the roughly 240 hostages “to be released without further delay,” the White House said, intensifying its rhetoric regarding the urgency of the issue.

During Tuesday night’s war cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Biden and urged him to pressure the Qatari Emir to expand the number of hostages to include in the deal being negotiated by Doha between Israel and Hamas, Channel 12 reported

Mossad chief David Barnea is already in touch with the Qataris, but Netanyahu wanted to up the pressure from another source, the report said

After previous hostage deal proposals would have seen parent hostages separated from their children abducted with them in Gaza, the war cabinet informed mediators that under no circumstances would Israel accept the separation of mothers from their children.

According to the report, the latest Qatari proposal from Tuesday would see 50 hostages freed in return for a five-day ceasefire and the release of 150 female security prisoners being held in Israel.

However, as this would see some mothers separated from their children, Israel refused and is demanding that all mothers and children be released together, the report said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at posters of the Gaza hostages on November 14, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

According to Channel 12, Netanyahu urged Biden to try to secure the release of at least 70 hostages in all.

Channel 12 also noted that even as proposals are being discussed, it can take hours or days to hear back from Hamas leaders in Gaza who are the ones making decisions in the terror group and are currently located deep underground and only able to make contact with the outside world in a limited manner.

Meanwhile, Hamas issued a statement warning Israel not to drag its feet.

The recorded statement from the military wing spokesman, who goes by the name of Abu Obeida, warned Israel that the hostages “could become forgotten.”

He also said that the longer the hostages remain in captivity, the greater the chances of them being killed. Hamas has on several occasions claimed that hostages have been killed in Israeli strikes. Israel denounces these claims as psychological warfare and propaganda.

Hamas also published a video Friday apparently showing 86-year-old Aryeh Zalmanovich, one of the hostages being held in Gaza. The footage raises concerns regarding Zalmanovich’s well-being.

As was the case with previous clips of hostages broadcast by terror groups in recent weeks, Israeli media did not publish the footage, out of respect for the families of the abducted and not to lend a hand to the psychological warfare being employed by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Aryeh Zalmanovich. (Courtesy)

Zalmanovich was taken hostage from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7 and has not been heard from since. Before being kidnapped, he managed to text one of his sons informing him that terrorists had infiltrated the Kibbutz.

He is one of the founding members of Nir Oz, bordering Gaza, working as a farmer there for decades. He has two sons and five grandchildren.

Also Friday, Tanzania’s foreign ministry announced the death of Clemence Felix Mtenga, a 22-year-old citizen who was thought to have been among the hostages in Gaza.

Mtenga was in Israel as part of a modern agriculture training program in the Gaza border town of Nir Oz. He and fellow Tanzanian national Joshua Luito Molal had been unaccounted for since October 7.

The foreign ministry statement did not provide any details regarding Mtenga’s death but said it was in contact with Israeli authorities about bringing his body back to Tanzania for burial.

National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi said earlier Friday that Israel will only agree to a ceasefire in exchange for the release of a “massive” number of hostages and not a “manipulative release” done by Hamas for public relations purposes.

“Only then will we agree to a ceasefire and it will be very limited and short because afterward, we will continue advancing toward our goals for the war,” Hanegbi said at a press conference.

The National Security Council chairman said the war cabinet is united in its strategy for advancing the release of the some 240 hostages being held in Gaza, indicating that the ministers believe it will only happen if Hamas feels squeezed and under pressure, rejecting the claim of Qatari mediators that the Israel Defense Force’s ground incursion complicates the talks.

Families of the Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza march along with hundreds of supporters towards the Knesset in Jerusalem, as part of a protest calling for the immediate release of the hostages, near Jerusalem, November 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hanegbi said that after two pairs of hostages were released on October 20 and 22, there was a proposal to release 10 hostages — eight of whom were Thai workers — as well as a proposal to release 15 hostages.

However, these were rejected by Netanyahu and the war cabinet, Hanegbi said, adding that Israel will not agree to a temporary ceasefire for such a small number of hostages while so many remain in Gaza.

Netanyahu, speaking in an interview earlier in the week, declined to say if he’d agree to release Palestinian security prisoners in return for the Israeli hostages’ freedom.

Israel’s efforts to secure the release of the hostages got a boost on Friday when Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa made the clearest call yet from an Arab leader for the release of the hostages.

“I don’t think any Arab leader has called on Hamas to do this… So it is a time for straight talking,” Khalifa said ahead of the annual Manama Dialogue security summit.

He proposed Israel release non-combatant female and teenage prisoners currently held in its jails in exchange for the hostages in Gaza.

The hostages were seized when Hamas-led terrorists launched a devastating onslaught on October 7, in which they rampaged through southern Israeli communities, killing over 1,200 people, mostly civilians butchered in their homes and at a music festival. In response, Israel embarked on a massive air and ground campaign with the aim of toppling the terror group’s regime in Gaza, which it has ruled since taking over in a 2007 coup.

Four of the hostages have been released so far, while one hostage was rescued by Israeli forces.

The IDF has also recovered the bodies of two hostages who were killed after being taken into the Gaza Strip.

Israel has said that securing the release of the hostages is a main goal of its incursion into Gaza, along with destroying the military and governance capabilities of Hamas.

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