Families block Ayalon Highway with Shabbat dinner table

Israeli team holds hostage talks in Paris, amid cautious optimism for progress

Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs meet US, Qatari and Egyptian envoys after reported ‘softening’ of Hamas demands, but officials stress a deal is not imminent

In a photo provided by activists, hostages' families set up a Shabbat dinner table and urge an immediate deal to release their loved ones from captivity, blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, February 23, 2024. (Amir Terkel)
In a photo provided by activists, hostages' families set up a Shabbat dinner table and urge an immediate deal to release their loved ones from captivity, blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, February 23, 2024. (Amir Terkel)

Gaza truce talks were underway in Paris on Friday, in what appeared to be the most serious push in weeks to temporarily halt the fighting in the battered Hamas-run enclave and see Israeli and foreign hostages released.

Mossad chief David Barnea, the head of Israel’s delegation to Paris, conferred separately with CIA Director William Burns, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed source briefed on the matter. The Egyptians and Qataris serve as mediators between Israel and Hamas, who do not negotiate directly.

The war cabinet voted unanimously Thursday to dispatch a delegation to the talks, led by Barnea and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, after Israel previously demanded Hamas “soften” its demands in order to achieve progress.

An official from Hamas said the terror group had wrapped up its team’s truce talks in Cairo and was now waiting to see what mediators bring back from the weekend talks with Israel.

The cabinet’s decision to send negotiators to Paris came after a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top White House official Brett McGurk in Jerusalem Thursday, as some media reports indicated Hamas was indeed backing away from certain demands that Netanyahu had deemed “delusional.”

Some Israeli officials attributed that development to an impending Israeli offensive in Rafah, Hamas’s last Gaza stronghold.

File: Head of Mossad David Barnea attends a state ceremony marking 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, held at the military cemetery at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, on September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Friday afternoon saw families of hostages held in Gaza block Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway with a Shabbat dinner table, urging a deal to release their loved ones.

Family members held Shabbat prayers and set up empty chairs representing those who remain captive inside the Strip.


“There are budding signs of optimism about being able to move forward toward the start of a serious negotiation,” Reuters quoted the source as saying.

Hebrew media reports Friday evening cited cautious optimism by Israeli officials, though they stressed that a deal was not imminent.

“There is optimism, but we are only at the initial stage,” Channel 12 quoted an unnamed senior Israeli source saying. “The effort is to create a basic framework with clear criteria regarding what we are discussing and what we are not. There is still no deal close at hand. The goal is to deliver one before the start of the month of Ramadan.”

It also quoted an Israeli security source saying that Israel “will step up the military pressure until the last moment, because only negotiations amid fire will bring results.”

Relatives of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza gather for Shabbat eve in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024 (Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, with whom McGurk also met, has said the country’s hostage negotiators were being given expanded authority.

Channel 13 reported Friday evening that this time the Israeli team was given leeway with respect to humanitarian assistance and other matters that it was barred by the military censor from specifying. Channel 12 reported that the delegation had been empowered to ease its stance a little regarding the ratio of Palestinian security prisoners to be released in exchange for each hostage, after Hamas also eased its stance. There could also be Israeli flexibility on the length of a truce during which the deal would be implemented, and on matters relating to the post-war rehabilitation of Gaza and the return of northern Gazans to their homes.

There is no flexibility, Channel 12 stressed, regarding Israel’s rejection of the Hamas demand for a permanent ceasefire and the end of the war — a demand that Hamas continues to insist upon as a condition for a new hostage deal.

This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meeting with US envoy Brett McGurk, February 22, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Diplomatic efforts have taken on fresh urgency ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10 and is regularly a time of increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly surrounding holy sites including Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Egypt has also been anxious to forestall a possible Israeli offensive in Rafah, which the country fears would push hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into its territory.

Washington’s National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists on Thursday that McGurk’s discussions had been “going well,” while war cabinet minister Benny Gantz spoke Wednesday of “the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress.”

Barnea and Burns helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Terrorists in Gaza still hold 136 people in captivity, not all of them alive.

Mediators have been trying for months to broker another pause in fighting and hostage release deal. Talks have been stuck since Netanyahu rejected the “delusional” demands from Hamas seeking the release of thousands of Palestinian security prisoners, including hundreds serving life sentences, an end to the war, and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza.

Nonetheless, Hamas’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, arrived in Egypt Tuesday, in the strongest sign in weeks that negotiations remained alive.

Illustrative: this handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on February 13, 2024, shows Hamas’ political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh preparing to welcome the Iranian Foreign Minister in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)

In that vein, Channel 12 reported Friday that Hamas had drastically lowered the number of prisoners it would demand Israel to release in return for the hostages. According to Channel 12, Hamas is now demanding the release of several dozen, and perhaps fewer, Palestinian prisoners in return for each Israeli hostage — down from hundreds.

Other Hamas demands remained the same, according to the report, and included a roughly four-and-a-half month truce, as well as a staggered release of Israeli hostages, where “humanitarian cases” would be released first and abducted soldiers last.

Speaking to Channel 12 Friday, Culture Minister Micky Zohar said that the change in Hamas’s position was the result of Israel’s military pressure, and particularly the threat that Israel’s military would push into the Gaza Strip’s southernmost city of Rafah, where over a million displaced people from the enclave’s north and center have found shelter from the Israeli offensive.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2-L) heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

However, Hamas was still insisting on a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, Ynet reported Friday, citing Palestinian sources.

Netanyahu’s plan

Israel, meanwhile, seeks open-ended control over security affairs in Gaza, relegating control of civilian affairs to “local officials,” according to a long-awaited postwar plan Netanyahu presented to the security cabinet Thursday for approval.

Netanyahu’s plan drew swift rebukes from Palestinian officials, who were quoted by The Associated Press Friday as calling it “colonialist and racist.”

Speaking to reporters about Netanyahu’s plan in Buenos Aires Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reiterated his country’s position that there “should be no Israeli reoccupation of Gaza” and that “the size of Gaza’s territory should not be reduced.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference after meeting with Argentine President Javier Milei at Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires on February 23, 2024. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)

War broke out on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and take over 250 hostages of all ages, while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to uproot the Palestinian terror group, Israel launched an unprecedented offensive in the coastal enclave, destroying about half of its residences and displacing over a million people, many of whom face the risk of starvation.

According to the Strip’s Hamas-controlled health ministry, nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the hostilities. The figure, which cannot be independently verified, does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, of whom Hamas says it has lost about 6,000, while the Israeli military claims to have killed 12,000.

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