Israeli negotiator: Expanding Rafah op will endanger hostages

IDF recovers bodies of hostages Itzhak Gelerenter, Amit Buskila and Shani Louk in Gaza

Army says the three escaped from rave on Oct. 7 before being murdered by Hamas terrorists, who kidnapped their bodies; Gelerenter and Buskila were presumed alive until recently

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

From left to right: Itzhak Gelerenter, Amit Buskila, and Shani Louk. (Courtesy)
From left to right: Itzhak Gelerenter, Amit Buskila, and Shani Louk. (Courtesy)

The military announced Friday that soldiers recovered the bodies of three hostages from the Gaza Strip, as intensive fighting raged there between Israeli forces and Hamas.

The three were named as Itzhak Gelerenter, Amit Buskila, and Shani Louk.

In a press statement, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the bodies were recovered in an overnight operation carried out by the military and Shin Bet.

The three were at the Supernova music festival near Re’im on the morning of the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught, where they then fled to the Mefalsim area.

Hagari said they were killed there by Hamas terrorists, and their bodies were then kidnapped to Gaza.

Until recently, both Gelerenter and Buskila were presumed to be alive, while Louk was confirmed dead in late October after a piece of her skull was identified following widely shared footage of terrorists kidnapping her.

In this aerial view people walk past portraits of people who were taken hostage or killed in the Hamas attack on the Supernova music festival on October 7, at the site of the festival near Kibbutz Reim in southern Israel on April 10, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The military had initially not planned to make the announcement of the recovery of the bodies on Friday, but rather wait until the operation had concluded. However, due to rumors spreading on social media about the operation, it was decided to release some information, including the names of the three hostages.

“I call on the public — please refrain from spreading rumors and maintain the security of our forces. Keep our forces safe. Listen to the messages of the IDF spokesperson and the official bodies only,” Hagari said. “We will update with any information that is available, transparently, first of all the families and then the public through the media.”

According to Hagari, the recovery efforts have “been going on for a long time already.” He also said some of the intelligence for the operation came from Palestinian terror suspects captured by the IDF and interrogated by the Shin Bet.

“The intense fighting in all parts of the Strip continues, and the task of utmost importance of returning the hostages is [on the mind] of every commander and fighter in the field,” he added.

Shani Louk’s father Nissim later told Channel 12 news while the announcement that the IDF recovered her body was difficult to receive, it was also news that he had been waiting for, since he had been officially informed more than six months ago that Shani was dead.

Nissim said military representatives showed him a picture of Shani’s body when they informed him that her remains were recovered from Gaza, while praising the “brave soldiers” who did so.

Shani Louk was killed on October 7 by Hamas terrorists near the Supernova rave and her body was recovered in an IDF operation and returned to Israel on May 17, 2024. (Courtesy)

Gelerenter’s son Ilai said the family was grappling with “difficult feelings” in the wake of the news, after holding out hope for months that Itzhak would return alive.

“This is a second blow, after the first time we heard about what happened [on October 7],” Ilai told the Walla news site, while saying the family took solace that Itzhak can now be buried in Israel.

He also stressed support for the security forces who carried out “the historic operation” and the hostage families “that still do not know the fate of their loved ones.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “heartbroken” by the news and pledged to return the remaining hostages.

“My wife Sara and I grieve with the families,” he said in a statement. “We will return all of our hostages — living and deceased alike.”

“I congratulate our brave forces who, with determined action, returned our sons and daughters home,” he added.

In a similar statement, President Isaac Herzog said Israelis “carry the hope and prayer for the speedy return of all the other hostages” and that “the memory of those we have lost be blessed.”

File – People visit the site of the Supernova music festival massacre in Re’im, January 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Channel 12 quoted a senior member of Israel’s hostage negotiating team as saying that a decision by Netanyahu’s government to further expand the IDF’s operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah would put hostages’ lives at risk.

Such warnings have been made by foreign officials, but this is the first time that they have been echoed — albeit anonymously — by a senior member of Israel’s own negotiating team, which is led by Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and IDF general Nitzan Alon.

Netanyahu and other members of his government have insisted that military pressure, such as the operation in Rafah, is what will coax Hamas into agreeing to a hostage deal.

The Israeli hostage negotiator reportedly argued that further expanding the Rafah operation would lead Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar to double down in his current refusal to compromise, harming efforts to reach a deal in the near future.

The only strategy that will work at this point in convincing Sinwar to come down from his demands, according to the official, would be if Israel were to advance a viable alternative to Hamas’s rule in Gaza.

Netanyahu has argued that such conversations regarding the post-war management of Gaza before Hamas has been dismantled are futile because no one will agree to take up the reins so long as Hamas remains in the picture.

The hostages were seized on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

The victims of the Supernova festival accounted for nearly a third of those killed during the Hamas attack, while some of their abductions were widely circulated on videos on social media.

Israel responded with a military offensive to destroy Hamas and free the hostages, with the war now in its eighth month.

Family members visit the site of the Supernova music festival massacre, six month after the October 7 Hamas terror assault, in Re’im forest, near the Gaza border, April 7, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

It is believed that 125 hostages 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 four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 15 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 37 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also 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 after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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