Second high-level summit on hostages in Paris possible soon

Gantz sees signs of progress on hostage deal, warns of looming Rafah op during Ramadan

War cabinet member says government will not seek sweeping limitations on Arab Israeli worshipers at Al-Aqsa during holy month — only on individuals considered dangerous

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference at IDF headquarters, in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2024. (Contact Productions)
Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference at IDF headquarters, in Tel Aviv, February 21, 2024. (Contact Productions)

A new hostage deal between Israel and Hamas could be in the works, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz declared on Wednesday, but if the sides fail to reach an agreement Israel will invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah over Ramadan.

He also said the entire war cabinet was united in opposition to sweeping limitations on Arab Israelis visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount during Ramadan — as has reportedly been sought by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. Netanyahu was reported earlier this week to have sided with Ben Gvir on the issue.

Talking of a hostage deal, Gantz told reporters during a press conference at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv that there were “initial signs that indicate the possibility of moving forward” on a new framework. He pledged to “leave no stone unturned” in the effort to free those kidnapped on October 7.

He did not offer further details, but unconfirmed reports in Arabic media Wednesday claimed Hamas had softened its position somewhat, as talks continue between the terror group’s representatives and mediators in Cairo.

Channel 12 reported Wednesday evening that Israel was gearing up to attend another high-level summit in Paris on Friday aimed at securing a long-elusive hostage deal.

Like the first such summit in Paris late last month, this one would be attended by Mossad chief David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and CIA chief Bill Burns, the network said.

It said that before confirming its attendance, Israel was waiting to see more progress in the ongoing talks Egypt and Hamas were holding in Cairo.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to send an Israeli delegation for further hostage negotiations in Cairo, saying Hamas was continuing to insist on “delusional” demands for a hostage deal.

On limitations to visits by Arab Israelis to Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, Gantz said the war cabinet was united in only seeking restrictions on specific individuals who are deemed dangerous, and “not on those who come to pray.” He added that Arab Israelis “are an integral part of Israeli society” who must enjoy equal rights.

Ben Gvir’s desired limitations, ostensibly to prevent extremist elements from entering the Al-Aqsa compound and foment unrest during Ramadan, were reportedly opposed by both Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who raised legal objections, and the Shin Bet security agency, which warned that the curbs could spark an angry backlash and play into the hands of Hamas.

Gantz reiterated that Israel was prepared to launch a planned Rafah offensive during Ramadan if a hostage deal is not reached by the time the Muslim holy month starts around March 10.

“On the battlefield, we are facing an operation in Rafah, which will begin after the population is evacuated from the area,” he said, arguing that clearing out the last remaining Hamas forces operating there was critical for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip.

Kites are flown over Rafah as smoke billows following Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 20, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“I repeat, if there is no hostage deal, we will also operate during Ramadan,” he said, adding that since November’s temporary ceasefire, “we have not stopped fighting for even one day — and we will not stop even for a minute, without our hostages being returned.”

It is believed that 134 hostages out of more than 250 abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and some others were released in other circumstances.

Rafah, which sits on the Gaza-Egypt border, is the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the enclave, but it is also where over a million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.

US President Joe Biden has warned Netanyahu that a military incursion “should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support” of the city’s civilian population. Similar warnings have been issued by many of Israel’s Western allies and Netanyahu has said such a plan is in the works.

Gantz said Israel will retain complete security control but no civilian control over the Gaza strip following the war, hours after the Knesset adopted a declaration opposing the “unilateral” creation of a Palestinian state.

After October 7, “it would be a mistake to give such a tailwind to terrorism,” Gantz said of unilateral action, arguing that political arrangements that do not stem from direct talks “will not be sustainable.”

“In any future situation, Israel will maintain its supremacy and its operational capabilities in the entire Gaza Strip,” he promised, insisting that Israel “will not allow murderers to return to control places where the IDF has operated.

“We are examining a number of options so that aid to Gaza will be delivered through an international administration of moderate Arab countries with the support of the US. We are currently promoting pilot programs of the transfer” through third parties, he said.

“Our goal and the goal of the donor countries is the same: aid to the residents and not to the terrorists” and “we are working to strengthen the moderate axis vis-à-vis Iran, and establish a regional administration that will help the Palestinians build another government in Gaza.”

Palestinians protest after Friday prayers during Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound and Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 7, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Turning to the controversy over the ultra-Orthodox military draft, Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, called on members of the community to “arise and enlist” in the military, stating that “you don’t need a law to enlist — this is the solution to Israel’s security needs.”

Gantz’s comments came hours after the Attorney General’s Office requested a further extension from the High Court of Justice to legislate a law regulating the exemptions received by ultra-Orthodox men from military service, as the current deadline to pass such a law by March 31 rapidly approaches.

Reuters and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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