Netanyahu: Hamas has 'very simple choice: surrender or die'

Hamas says no hostage negotiations unless fighting in Gaza stops; Israel: No chance

Terror group says it won’t take part in talks as it sends Ismail Haniyeh to Cairo; Herzog to French official: Israel has ‘made it clear it is prepared for a humanitarian pause’

In this picture released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Dec. 20, 2023, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, left, welcomes Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian for their meeting in Doha, Qatar. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)
In this picture released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Dec. 20, 2023, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, left, welcomes Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian for their meeting in Doha, Qatar. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

Israel on Thursday firmly rejected a Hamas demand to permanently halt fighting before releasing any more hostages being held by terrorists in Gaza, as talks in Cairo for a truce deal appeared to make little progress.

A Hamas official told AFP that “a total ceasefire and a retreat of the Israeli occupation army from the Gaza Strip are a precondition for any serious negotiation” on a hostage-prisoner swap.

Israel has repeatedly rejected any such proposition, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated on Thursday the longstanding position in no uncertain terms: “We are fighting until victory. We will not stop the war until we achieve all its goals — completing the destruction of Hamas, and releasing all of our hostages.”

Netanyahu added that he was giving Hamas a “very simple choice: surrender or die. They do not have and will not have any other option.”

He added that “after we destroy Hamas, I will work with all my power to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel” — an apparent indication that he does not intend to step down or publicly take responsibility for the failures that enabled Hamas’s October 7 massacres.

A senior Israeli official told reporters Thursday that there are currently no active negotiations for a new hostage release agreement with Hamas, but noted that Israeli officials have met twice this week with Qatari officials to discuss a new framework for such a deal.

“We made clear to everyone in Israel and outside of Israel that it’s time to renew the shaping up of a new hostages [release] structure,” the official said during an off-record press briefing. He said a previous hostage deal — in which 105 hostages were released during a week-long ceasefire that saw Israel free 240 Palestinian security prisoners — worked well, and that Israel was now ready to discuss new stages for hostage releases in order to return the remaining 129 to Israel.

Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

A senior Hamas official told Al Jazeera later Thursday that the terror group is not interested in freeing hostages in exchange for even weeks-long pauses in the fighting, because Israel would continue the war afterward.

“Some people are looking for a small pause — a pause here and there for one week, two weeks, three weeks,” Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’s political bureau in Lebanon, said. “But we want to stop the aggression [completely].”

“Because I think Israel will take the card of the hostages, and after that they will start a new round of mass killing and massacres against our people. I think we will not play this game,” said Hamad, who has previously said Hamas will seek to carry out October 7-like attacks repeatedly in the future until Israel is destroyed.

The Hamas claim that it would not even negotiate comes as the terror group sent its leader to Cairo for ongoing hostage talks. Meanwhile, Israeli negotiating officials have met this week with Qatari sources in Europe as Israel appears to be angling for another round of releases.

Qatar-based Hamas political bureau leader Ismail Haniyeh visited Egypt on Wednesday for talks with the country’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Mossad chief David Barnea (L) meets US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Courtesy)

Mossad director David Barnea held a “positive meeting” in Warsaw with CIA chief Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani earlier this week, a source familiar with the talks told AFP.

Meeting with the president of the French Senate in Jerusalem on Thursday, President Isaac Herzog said that Israel “has made it clear that it is prepared for a humanitarian pause and to continue humanitarian aid to Gaza in order to allow for the return of hostages… we can allow the entry of 300 or even 400 trucks per day,” he added, blaming the UN for limiting the distribution of such aid in the Strip.

On Tuesday, Herzog told a gathering of foreign diplomats that “Israel is ready for another humanitarian pause and additional humanitarian aid in order to enable the release of hostages. And the responsibility lies fully with [Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya] Sinwar and the leadership of Hamas.”

President Isaac Herzog (R) meets with French Senate President Gérard Larcher in Jerusalem on December 21, 2023. (GPO)

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Hamas had rejected an Israeli proposal for a weeklong truce in the Gaza Strip in return for the release of some 40 hostages, including all women and children the Palestinian terror group still holds.

Citing Egyptian officials, the Journal reported that under the rejected proposal, Hamas would have also freed elderly male hostages who require urgent medical care. In exchange, Israel would halt air and ground operations in Gaza for a week and allow increased aid into the coastal territory.

But Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — another Iran-backed terror organization slated to take part in negotiations for the first time — reportedly told Egyptian mediators Israel must end its offensive in the Strip before they will discuss any potential deal.

The last temporary truce deal, brokered by Qatar and Egypt, saw a seven-day lull in fighting in exchange for Hamas releasing 105 hostages — 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino — while Israel freed 240 Palestinian security prisoners and allowed boosted levels of aid to enter the Strip. Earlier, four hostages were released by Hamas and one was rescued by the IDF.

Photographs of Israeli hostages being held in the Gaza Strip are placed on a house in Kibbutz Be’eri, Dec. 20, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

It is believed that 129 hostages remain in Gaza, including the bodies of 21 hostages killed in captivity. The IDF has recovered the bodies of 11 hostages so far, including three killed by troops after they were accidentally identified as a threat.

In addition to the 129 hostages who were kidnapped on October 7, Hamas has been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive.

The White House’s National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, said Wednesday that the talks are “very serious discussions and negotiations, and we hope that they lead somewhere.” He made the comment to reporters aboard Air Force One while traveling with US President Joe Biden.

Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups took around 240 hostages into Gaza on October 7 during their murderous rampage through southern Israel, in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed. In response, Israel launched a military campaign against the terror group in the Strip, beginning its ground offensive in late October.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claims at least 20,000 people in the Strip have been killed since the start of the war, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes those killed by failed Palestinian rocket launches. Israeli officials have said over 7,000 of those killed in Gaza are Hamas operatives. The IDF says 137 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive so far.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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