ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Israeli official: 'No way' we will accept Hamas demands

In Jerusalem, Blinken says ‘a lot of work to be done’ to reach hostage deal

US secretary of state has long one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu after Hamas sends counterproposal; PM to hold press conference before Blinken speaks to media

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that “there’s a lot of work to be done” to reach a hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas.

“We’re looking at it intensely,” Blinken told Herzog after Hamas presented its terms, “as is, I know, the government of Israel, and there’s a lot of work to be done, but we are very much focused on doing that work and hopefully, being able to resume the release of hostages that was interrupted so many months ago.”

Before his meeting with the president, Blinken held an extended one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu.

The PMO did not release any details from the meeting in its readout, but said it was “long and in-depth.”

After Blinken and his aides met with Netanyahu and his staff, Netanyahu’s office announced that the prime minister would be holding a press conference in Jerusalem Wednesday evening to discuss attempts to reach a deal.

Hamas proposed a ceasefire plan that would see a four-and-a-half-month truce during which hostages would be freed in three stages, and which would lead to an end to the war, Reuters reported, in response to a proposed outline sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators and backed by the United States and Israel.

The atmosphere at the PMO seemed lighter than during Blinken’s previous trip in January. Netanyahu greeted Blinken with a joke, saying, “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“Yeah, it’s been a few weeks,” responded Blinken, who is on his fifth trip to the region since the start of the war.

The PMO did not release a readout at all after the January meeting, amid reports that the talks were tense.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Blinken met during the expanded meeting with Netanyahu’s aides and members of the war cabinet, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, Military Secretary Avi Gil and other top advisers.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi also participated, after a private meeting between him and Blinken was reportedly vetoed by Netanyahu’s office.

Blinken then met Herzog at his residence in Jerusalem to discuss the Hamas proposal and efforts to achieve further normalization deals.

“We are yearning and praying for the immediate release of our hostages,” said Herzog. “We want to see them back as soon as possible. The situation is dire. And clearly Hamas is violating every rule of human behavior in this respect.”

Israelis block a highway as they demand the release of the hostage from Hamas captivity during a rally in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Herzog also emphasized that Israel is following international humanitarian law and is facilitating the entry of aid into Gaza.

“We’ve made it clear in the International Court of Justice in the Hague,” he continued, “we made it clear at all forums that are relevant to this question and as such, we of course condemn and reject any call for hurting or damaging any civilian population anywhere, let alone of course, in this conflict.”

Blinken blamed civilian deaths and suffering in Gaza squarely on Hamas.

“There are so many innocent men, women, and children who are suffering as a result of the attacks perpetrated by Hamas, and now being caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making,” he told Herzog.

Heavy demands

According to a source quoted by Reuters, the Hamas counterproposal did not require a guarantee of a permanent ceasefire at the outset, but that an end to the war would have to be agreed on during the truce before the final hostages were freed.

A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024 show a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)

Israeli leaders have said repeatedly that they would not end the war until Hamas is toppled.

An Israeli official told CNN on Wednesday that there is “no way” it would accept the Hamas proposal.

The Hamas counterproposal envisions three phases, each lasting 45 days, said Reuters, citing a draft document it viewed.

During the first 45-day phase, all Israeli women hostages, males under 19 and the elderly and sick would be released, in exchange for female and underage Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel would withdraw troops from populated areas.

Implementation of the second phase would not begin until the sides conclude “indirect talks over the requirements needed to end the mutual military operations and return to complete calm.”

The second phase would include the release of remaining male hostages and full Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza. Bodies and remains would be exchanged during the third phase. By the end of the third phase, Hamas would expect the sides to have reached agreement on an end to the war.

The terror group, which governs Gaza, said in an addendum to the proposal that it sought the release of 1,500 prisoners from Israeli jails, a third of whom it wanted to select from a list of Palestinians serving life sentences.

It is believed that 132 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. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military.

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.

Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (L), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Khaled Mashal in Doha, October 17, 2016. (Qatar government handout)

Hamas’s response was issued while Blinken was in the midst of his fifth Mideast diplomacy tour since the start of the war, which was sparked by Hamas’s terror onslaught that killed some 1,200 Israelis and saw another 253 people taken hostage, of whom 132 remain in captivity in Gaza.

Israel subsequently launched a counteroffensive aimed at dismantling Hamas and returning the hostages. More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. These figures cannot be independently verified, are believed to include fatalities caused by failed rocket fire by Gaza terror groups, and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza, as well as 1,000 terrorists in Israel on October 7. Two hundred and twenty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

Jacob Magid and agencies contributed to this report.

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