In surprise delay, top Netanyahu aide says hostage release ‘not before Friday’

National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi announces talks for deal on at least 50 hostages and 4-day fighting lull ‘progressing’; truce also on hold, war to continue

  • National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi speaks to reporters at the Israel Defense Forces' Tel Aviv headquarters, October 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash 90)
    National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi speaks to reporters at the Israel Defense Forces' Tel Aviv headquarters, October 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash 90)
  • Families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, November 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
    Families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, November 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
  • People walk next to pictures of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Jerusalem, November 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    People walk next to pictures of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Jerusalem, November 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • A sign calling for the release of the hostages held in Gaza by Hamas since October 7, in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
    A sign calling for the release of the hostages held in Gaza by Hamas since October 7, in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a surprise announcement close to midnight on Wednesday, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the highly anticipated release of the first group of 50 Israeli abductees held by Hamas in Gaza as part of a hostage deal would not take place on Thursday, as previously announced, but only Friday.

National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi circulated a statement that said the negotiations for the hostages “are constantly progressing” and “the release will begin according to the original agreement between the parties, and not before Friday.”

An Israeli source also said the four-day lull in fighting, per the deal, would be on hold and that Israeli military operations in Gaza would continue as long as the agreement is not finalized, Haaretz reported.

Hours later, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson said the hostage talks Doha is mediating between Israel and Hamas were “progressing positively” and that an announcement will be made in the coming hours regarding the exact time that the truce will begin.

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said in a statement that Qatar is working with the two sides, along with the US “to ensure the rapid start of the truce and to provide what is necessary to ensure the parties’ commitment to the agreement.”

The delay is a blow to families who are desperate to see their abducted children, spouses, daughters, and sisters return after close to 50 days as Hamas hostages.

A man and a child walk past portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the Oct. 7 onslaught by Hamas, in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The deal set to unfold, as detailed by Israel’s cabinet, would trade 50 living Israeli hostages — children, their mothers, and other women in groups of 12-13 people — for a four-day lull in fighting and the release of up to 150 Palestinian female and underage prisoners. It would also enable an influx of fuel and humanitarian supplies to Gaza during the pause, a first since Hamas initiated war nearly seven weeks ago when its terror members rampaged through southern Israel on October 7 and massacred some 1,200 people, most of them civilians.

On the same day, more than 240 were abducted to the Gaza Strip by the terror group and other Palestinian factions.

An Israeli official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity late Wednesday explained the delay, saying that contrary to what was previously understood in Jerusalem, both Israel and Hamas need to sign onto a document ratifying the agreement for it to take effect.

The document will hopefully be signed within the next 24 hours, in time for the first hostages to be released on Friday, the Israeli official said.

The official also said that, contrary to an earlier report on Channel 12, which claimed that Mossad chief David Barnea received a list of the first batch of hostages slated for release, he does not believe that list has been received yet.

Mossad chief David Barnea speaks during the opening ceremony of the Eli Cohen Museum in Herzliya, December 12, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel will not be publishing the names ahead of their release to avoid any false hope among the families if the agreement falls through.

According to multiple reports, Barnea had the list in hand Wednesday. He was in Doha with Gen. Nitzan Alon, who has held the hostage file for the Israel Defense Forces, and the two reportedly met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani to discuss the final details of the deal.

An unsourced Channel 12 report late Wednesday said the delay was due to a lack of mutual understandings on the “rules of the game” during the lull in fighting over the four-day truce agreement.

A question of time

Hanegbi’s surprise announcement Wednesday night came hours after a senior Israeli official said the release of some 50 Israeli hostages would begin Thursday and confirmed details of the Hamas deal in a Wednesday evening briefing with reporters.

The briefing followed an announcement by senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk who said the deal would go into effect at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz held a lengthy press conference on the merits of the deal on Wednesday evening.

If completed, the agreement would be the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since the war erupted last month.

According to the deal, if Hamas is able to locate additional hostages who are either minors or female non-combatants to release, the deal can be extended to up to 10 days, with one extra day’s pause in the fighting for every 10 hostages released. Three additional Palestinian prisoners would be released for each hostage freed.

Families of Israeli hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip protest outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv calling for their release, on November 21, 2023, during the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

In the press briefing to reporters earlier Wednesday, the senior Israeli source said Jerusalem believes Hamas’s main interest in the negotiations was to maximize the duration of the pause in hostilities, and that fuel and humanitarian aid are not Hamas’s central concern.

Initially, the official said, Hamas wanted a month-long halt in the fighting, but reduced its demands to four days. Nonetheless, the official added, extending the pause beyond four days is a central goal of Hamas.

Since Hamas would like to extend the pause by a few more days, there is a chance that a total of 80 kidnapped children and women directly held by the terror group could be released under the provisions of the deal, the official said.

Hamas has said it is holding 210 hostages of the 240 abducted from Israel on October 7, with Islamic Jihad and other factions holding about 30. Hamas has conveyed that it needs time to locate the hostages that are not held by the group.

A US official told reporters on Tuesday that Hamas produced a list with identifying information about the 50 women and children it plans to release over the coming days.

Regarding the daily number of releases, the senior Israeli official noted that Hamas is bound by the agreement to release 50 hostages within four days, with no fewer than 10 hostages per day of halted fighting. Thus, if Hamas hands over only 10 hostages per day in the first three days, Hamas would have to make up the numbers to reach a total of 50 by the fourth day.

98 women and children hostages

According to Israeli estimates, Hamas holds a total of 98 women and children, 40 of whom are under the age of 19. At first, Hamas had more than 100 living women and children, but after the murders of Yehudit Weiss and Noa Marciano in captivity, that number dropped. In addition, the terror group released four women, and a fifth was liberated in a daring Israeli military operation.

Left: Yehudit Weiss. (Courtesy); Right: Cpl. Noa Marciano (Courtesy)

Among the 98 women and children, there are five female soldiers in active service who are not included in the deal.

The Israeli source also said that beyond the potential maximum of 80 women and children that might be released in the coming days, Hamas has to “collect” women and children from elsewhere in the Strip to potentially be released in subsequent exchanges.

That is why Israel agreed to not gather overhead drone intelligence for six hours every day during the truce, enabling Hamas and its operatives to gather women and children hostages from different locations across the Strip, said the source.

On Tuesday, Israeli officials briefed reporters that Israel would not face a complete intelligence blackout during the windows during which it cannot fly sorties, as other, unspecified intelligence gathering mechanisms are in place.

Release mechanism

The first group of hostages are to be transferred to the International Red Cross and possibly to other unspecified parties. They will then be handed over to Israel via one of Gaza’s international border crossings, said the senior official.

Upon receiving proof that the hostages released are the Israeli citizens specifically agreed upon, Israel will release its agreed-upon group of Palestinian prisoners.

Given concerns that Hamas may not release the specific hostages it promises to release, Israel decided not to inform the relevant families that their loved ones were expected to be freed on Thursday, the senior official said.

After being received on the Israeli side, the former hostages will be given a brief medical examination and then flown to hospitals, the official added, where they are to be reunited with their families.

US negotiation pressure on Qatar

The US exerted significant pressure over Qatar to improve Israel’s hostage release deal terms, the senior official said.

US President Joe Biden sent CIA chief William Burns to Qatar in order to quash a Hamas demand to designate all Israeli women under 50 as soldiers, and pushed Qatar for Hamas to agree instead to use that classification only for the five women soldiers in active duty who are held by the terror group, the official said.

Additionally, the requirement for the International Red Cross to visit all remaining hostages is a binding element of the deal, the official said, and the US, Egypt, and Qatar will apply pressure to ensure it is honored.

White House Middle East Brett McGurk meets with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, on November 19, 2023. (Qatar News Agency/AFP)

The entire deal, the official added, was not formalized on a signed document, but rather was ratified by mutual announcement — by Israel to the US, and Hamas to Qatar.

With the deal making provisions for the return of up to 80 hostages, it would leave at least 160 or so hostages remaining in Gaza after its terms are completed.

Total hostage numbers are not final because Israel believes eight people are still missing nearly seven weeks after Hamas rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, including two foreign nationals and six Israeli citizens.

Truce violations

Israel fears that Hamas may violate the agreed halt in fighting, and fire upon soldiers in areas of northern Gaza controlled by the IDF, the senior Israeli official said.

Were soldiers to come under fire, they would be permitted to return fire, said the official, but Israel will attempt not to initiate military action.

The official said Hamas has weak control in northern Gaza and may not be able to exert authority over all terrorists in that area.

IDF troops operate inside Gaza during the ongoing ground offensive against Hamas, in a picture released November 22, 2023. (IDF Spokesman)

Therefore, Israel will carefully weigh how to respond to any truce violations on a case-by-case basis, mindful of the ongoing imperative to ensure that the release of hostages proceeds. Soldiers will confront any direct threat, while making the effort not to take actions that could be interpreted as breaching the agreement.

Israel intends to use the pause in fighting in order to plan for the war’s next steps, including to ensure as many hostages as possible are brought home, the official said.

Israel’s war cabinet has pledged to continue its operation — with the declared aims of destroying Hamas and securing the return of all hostages — after the pause in fighting lapses.

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