Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday told family members of the hundreds of hostages being held by terrorists in the Gaza Strip that military pressure on Hamas is more likely to win their loved ones’ release than a sweeping prisoner exchange.
Gallant dismissed a Hamas offer to free all captives it holds in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails as “psychological games” by the terror group, pushing back against calls by some families to take the ostensible deal.
“If there is no military pressure on Hamas, nothing will progress,” Gallant told relatives of some of the nearly 240 hostages known held by Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.
He was the latest senior Israeli official to meet representatives of captives’ families, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a similar meeting on Saturday, following complaints that the government was not devoting sufficient attention to the issue.
“The stories published by Hamas are part of their psychological games. Hamas is cynically using those who are dear to us,” Gallant said, adding that the terror group understands how the kidnappings cause pain and put stress on Israelis.
Hamas has so far released four of the at least 243 hostages it abducted on October 7, when some 2,500 terrorists stormed from Gaza into southern Israel, rampaging through communities and killing some 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
The abducted, also mainly civilians, include women, the elderly and children, some still in diapers.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, which rules Gaza, and to pursue every avenue to secure freedom for all of the hostages. Alongside intense strikes, the Israel Defense Forces has sent troops and tanks into the Gaza Strip, but has limited its ground offensive, apparently in order to keep from endangering efforts to free the hostages.
“The ground operation is intertwined with the effort to return the hostages,” Gallant told the families at the meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
But the minister also appeared to tamp down on expectations, saying the operation would be “complex” and include “disappointments.”
“Returning the hostages is part of the victory,” Gallant said, echoing relatives who earlier said that any victory would be hollow without the captives’ return.
“We are fighting against animals, not people,” he said. “They seek the collapse of Israeli society from within, and are using the hostages in a brutal manner.”
In a recording from the meeting broadcast by Channel 12 news, family representatives could be heard criticizing the government for its failings around the October 7 attack. Calls could also be heard for accepting Hamas’s “everyone for everyone” offer, with some expressing worries that the military campaign is endangering the lives of their loved ones.
“I demand that you accept this deal when it comes even if it is not on our terms,” the woman identified as a representative for the families could be heard saying. “You [the state leaders] caused us so much damage that you will never be able to compensate for it, but the little you can do is to save everyone who can be saved at any price. We have no time to lose.”
Gallant dismissed the “everybody for everybody” swap as illusory and meant to mess with Israelis psychologically. The ongoing ground operation in Gaza is pressuring the terror group, he insisted.
“If it was that simple [to do a swap] then it would not be a problem,” Gallant said.
Talk of a prisoner exchange as the solution to everything “is exactly what Hamas wants,” Gallant claimed, describing it as a tactic meant to sow divisions and distrust in the government.
“If the conditions were like that then it would happen tomorrow morning. Those are not the conditions,” he said, according to the recording.
The comments echoed answers given to the families during their Saturday meeting with Netanyahu, who said “the key is the level of pressure” on Gaza.
“The greater the pressure, the greater the chances [of freeing the captives],” the premier was quoted by his office as saying.
In the recording of the meeting with Gallant, another woman could be heard saying that “your first and only commitment is to return them all home. Everyone for everyone, and it doesn’t matter what price.”
Gallant assured the families that the military operation “takes into consideration” the safety of the hostages and that “if there is no military pressure on them [Hamas] we could wait 20 years [for the hostages to be released].”
Some elements of the recording were not permitted for publication by the censor, the network noted.
Gal Hirsch, the government’s point man on the hostage issue, attended the meeting, as well as other security officials. Hirsch has been criticized for appearing to eschew international efforts to negotiate a deal for the hostages’ freedom, which have been led by Qatar.
On Saturday, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said the group was ready for an “immediate” prisoner swap with Israel.
A day earlier, Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida demanded that Israel release all Palestinians imprisoned for security offenses in return for the Israeli hostages the group is holding, AFP reported.
“The price to pay for the large number of enemy hostages in our hands is to empty the [Israeli] prisons of all Palestinian prisoners,” he said, in a statement broadcast by the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television channel.
Hirsch also met with the families at President Isaac Herzog’s official residence earlier Sunday. Representatives told the president that there can’t be any victory without returning home all those who are missing.
He reiterated to the families that returning the captives is the first priority for the country and the entire world.
“We need to rely on the army that will bring them all home safely,” Herzog said. “Hamas is a cynical body that isn’t interested if the residents of Gaza go hungry or lack for humanitarian aid. All the world’s countries are on our side.”
Roughly 70 family members of 35 hostages participated in the meeting, and Herzog will meet with additional relatives in the coming days.
Anger at the government has grown among the hostages’ families in recent days as Israel has launched the first stage of its ground incursion into Gaza, which some of the relatives fear might risk the hostages’ lives.
The meetings with Netanyahu and Gallant were the first the families have had with the two men, and came after they issued a public demand to be allowed to speak with them.
Hirsch said negotiations are ongoing and every effort is being made to reach the abductees and get information. “We really want to succeed in this and bring all the families back home, safe and sound,” Hirsch said.
Jacky Levy, an uncle to the Calderon family, which has suffered the murders of two family members and the abduction of another three to Gaza, told Herzog and Hirsch that his family does not feel the issue of the captives is at the top of the country’s priorities.
“It took a long time for the government to get into things and even then many things were done badly,” he said. “For three weeks, the family has been living in a situation room, without sleep and without any real help from the government. The leaders of the country engage in petty politics; they expect you, Mr. President, to be the responsible adult.”