Hamas said to move toward Israel on truce deal, but PM claims demands still ‘ridiculous’

Terror group appears to list prisoners it wants freed for first time as source tells broadcaster deal possible; Netanyahu says pressure on Qatar to lean on Hamas ‘starting to work’

People visit a tunnel installation at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2024.  (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People visit a tunnel installation at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office downplayed hopes for an elusive deal with the Hamas terror group to pause fighting in Gaza and release hostages Thursday night, after an Israeli report indicated the sides were on the cusp of sealing an agreement.

An anonymous source told the Kan public broadcaster Thursday evening that a Hamas response to Israel’s negotiating position had included “reasonable” demands, indicating that “an agreement can be reached.”

But hours later, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office claimed the terror organization had not shown flexibility, describing its demands as “ridiculous.”

Mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the US have been scrambling to broker a deal between the warring sides for a several-week break in the fighting in Gaza and the release of some 100 hostages and dozens of bodies held captive in the enclave.

Talks appeared to break down late last week as Hamas demanded that Israel end the war and withdraw all troops from Gaza, rather than the six-week pause and partial withdrawal Jerusalem had already agreed to.

Hopes had risen in recent days though, with a senior Arab diplomat telling the Times of Israel earlier this week that talks were advancing after Qatar put heavy pressure on Hamas to soften its demands, warning that its leaders residing in Doha could be deported if they didn’t adapt their approach in the negotiations.

According to the Kan report, Qatari mediators passed Hamas’s official response to Israel’s negotiating team Thursday evening, which a source familiar with the matter said indicated “positive progress in the talks.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2024. (Nimrod Klikman/POOL)

A senior Israeli official was quoted by the Walla news site saying that Hamas’s response for the first time included the number of Palestinian security prisoners it wants to be released in exchange for freeing hostages in a first stage of the deal. According to the Arab Diplomat who spoke to ToI, the initial stage, which would last six weeks, would see the release of some 40 female, elderly and wounded hostages. Soldiers and all other male hostages would be released during a second phase, and a third phase would see the bodies of hostages released.

The official told Walla Hamas’s demands were still too high, but “there is something to work with.”

The group had initially demanded the release of all Palestinian females and minors incarcerated by Israel for terror offenses as well as a roster of high-value terror leaders responsible for bombings and other attacks that have killed dozens of Israelis.

Israel, which has agreed to lopsided deals to free captives in the past, has reportedly shown some willingness to compromise on the number and identity of prisoners it could agree to release, while holding firm to its demand that any truce be temporary, insisting that the war will continue until Hamas is destroyed.

This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on February 13, 2024, shows Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian (R) meeting with Hamas’s political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh in Doha. (Photo by Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP)

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas sent thousands of terrorists from Gaza streaming into southern Israel, where they carried out an unprecedented rampage, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 others.

It is believed that around 100 hostages remain in Gaza, along with the bodies of 32 people, after 105 of the hostages were freed during a week-long truce.

International mediators are desperate to broker a pause in the fighting after some six months of war that have left the Strip in ruins, with over 1 million Gazans displaced, and vital humanitarian relief slow to reach civilians for a variety of reasons. Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says over 31,000 people have been killed, though it does not differentiate between civilians and fighters. The numbers cannot be independently verified.

People check the destruction after an Israeli strike in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on March 13, 2024 (AFP)

Hamas confirmed that it presented mediators with the group’s stance on the prisoners-hostages exchange deal, without elaborating.

In a statement, it claimed that it had offered a comprehensive vision of a truce deal that is based on stopping the Israeli “aggression” against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, providing relief and aid, the return of displaced Gazans to their homes and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Strip.

Late Thursday, though, Netanyahu’s office released a statement accusing the terror group of continuing to dig its heels in with “ridiculous demands.”

The PMO said the security cabinet would receive an update on Hamas’s response on Friday.

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu told representatives of the families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza that “pressure on Qatar is starting to work.”

The premier said the Gulf country had changed tack and was now pushing Hamas to agree to a hostage deal, crediting Israel leaning on Doha for the shift.

“Qatar started telling them: ‘We will expel you. We will withhold money from you.’ These are things that were said; we made sure that they were indeed said. This is a change; it is a positive thing,” Netanyahu said during the Tel Aviv meeting, according to his office.

At the same time, Netanyahu lamented that “no real answer has come from Hamas.”

“They still have unacceptable demands,” he said. “They are reluctant to move forward; they also want to set the area on fire in Ramadan.”

A man looks at photographs of Israelis still held hostage in Gaza, at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv. March 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

A family member told cameras after the meeting that officials they met with had made “a real attempt” to provide answers to the families’ questions.

A statement from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum later Thursday said representatives had pressed Netanyahu to pursue a deal.

“We emphasized to him that the timing is now critical for the release of the hostages, and he must not miss the current opportunity on the table,” it read.

Families of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza speak to the media after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, March 14, 2024 (Credit: Flash90).

The group also criticized the premier for the amount of time that had passed since the last meeting.

Domestic pressure for a deal has ramped up in recent weeks from both the supporters of hostages’ families and anti-government activists. On Thursday, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in separate rallies for a hostage deal and against Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, with some protesters briefly blocking a main highway.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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