Hostages' families urge cabinet to seize moment

Hamas offers exchange of women, children, elderly hostages for up to 1,000 prisoners

Proposal, which Netanyahu rejects as ‘ridiculous,’ would include release of female soldiers in first stage, leading up to permanent deal to end war, see IDF withdraw from Gaza

People walk by photographs of  Israelis still held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at "Hostage Square" in Tel Aviv. March 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
People walk by photographs of Israelis still held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at "Hostage Square" in Tel Aviv. March 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Hamas has presented a Gaza ceasefire proposal to mediators and the US that includes the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for freedom for Palestinian prisoners, 100 of whom are serving life sentences, according to a proposal seen by Reuters.

Hamas said the initial release of Israelis would include women, children, the elderly, and ill hostages, in exchange for the release of 700-1000 Palestinian prisoners, according to the proposal. The release of Israeli “female recruits” is included.

According to the latest proposal, Hamas said it would agree on a date for a permanent ceasefire after the initial exchange of hostages and prisoners, and that a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would be agreed upon after the first stage.

The group said all detainees from both sides would be released in the second stage of the plan.

Ahead of a of the war cabinet on Friday to deliberate on the possibility of finalizing a hostage deal following Hamas’s offer, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night accused the terror group of continuing to dig its heels in with “ridiculous demands.”

His office said an update on the status of the indirect negotiations would be presented to both the war cabinet and the larger security cabinet on Friday.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum appealed to the war cabinet to agree to a deal.

“For the first time, we can envision embracing them again, please grant us this right,” the families of the hostages said in a statement.

They called on the prime minister and war cabinet not to postpone the deal and to save all 134 “daughters and sons who were cruelly taken, solely for being Israelis,” said the families. “For the first time, we can envision embracing them again. Please grant us this right.”

A Palestinian man with his belongings sits on a donkey cart amid the rubble of houses destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Hamad Town, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 14, 2024. (AFP)

Egypt and Qatar have been trying to narrow the differences between Israel and Hamas over what a ceasefire should look like as a deepening humanitarian crisis has one-quarter of the population in the battered Gaza Strip facing famine.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi stressed his aim to seek such a deal Friday and warned against the danger of an Israeli incursion into the city of Rafah, where an estimated 1.5 million people have sought shelter next to Gaza’s border with his country.

“We are talking about reaching a ceasefire in Gaza, meaning a truce, providing the largest quantity of aid,” he said in a message recorded during a visit to the police academy.

This would include “curbing the impact of this famine on people, and also allowing for the people in the center and the south to move towards the north, with a very strong warning against incursion into Rafah,” he said. “We warned of what is happening, that aid not entering would lead to famine.”

In February, Hamas received a draft proposal from Gaza truce talks in Paris that included a 40-day pause in all military operations and the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages at a ratio of 10 to one — a similar ratio to the new ceasefire proposal.

Talks appeared to break down late last week as Hamas demanded that Israel end the war and withdraw all troops in Gaza, rather than the six-week pause and partial withdrawal Jerusalem had already agreed to. Israel agreed to hold talks based on the Paris proposal but has stressed that any break in the fighting would be temporary, committing to its long-held goal of not ending the war until it destroys Hamas.

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.

Late on Thursday, Hamas said it presented to mediators a comprehensive vision of a truce based on stopping what it called Israeli aggression against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, providing relief and aid, the return of displaced Gazans to their homes, and withdrawing Israeli forces.

A senior Israeli official told the Walla news site that Hamas’s demands were still too high, but “there is something to work with.”

Representatives of about 20 families were invited for a personal meeting with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on Thursday night, after not meeting with the prime minister for more than six weeks. The families told the prime minister that the meetings with him and members of the war cabinet were “vital” and asked that they take place regularly and frequently, after weeks of asking for meetings and noting their far more frequent meetings with US administration officials.

Illustrative: Members of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror groups release Israeli hostages to the Red Cross, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

The families emphasized that it is the prime minister’s “responsibility and commitment to secure the release of all the hostages, both the living and the murdered,” they said in a statement and told him their sense of feeling invisible in the process of a hostage deal.

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.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas sent thousands of terrorists from Gaza into southern Israel, where they carried out an unprecedented rampage, killing 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 in November.

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, hunger rampant, 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, and the numbers cannot be independently verified.

The UN has warned that at least 576,000 people in Gaza are on the brink of famine and global pressure has been growing on Israel to allow more access for aid.

Lazar Berman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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