'For now, all that is left to do is to apply pressure'

Israel backing off hostage talks unless Hamas drops ‘delusional’ demands — official

Israeli source says Jerusalem won’t offer counter-proposal, instead seeking to put pressure on Qatar via the US to soften terror group’s terms; targeted raids planned for Rafah

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is working to pressure Hamas to withdraw its “delusional” terms for a potential hostage release deal, and is not about to offer new terms, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Hamas this week 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, in response to a proposed outline sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators and backed by the United States and Israel.

The Hamas proposal would have seen Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza with the terror group still intact ruling the Strip, as well as the release of 1,500 prisoners from Israeli jails, a third of whom are serving life sentences.

“The main target now is to create pressure from the Americans and other countries on Qatar, and from there on Hamas, in addition to the military pressure, to bring them down from their delusional demands,” said the official.

The US, along with mediators Egypt and Qatar, has continued to push for a hostage release agreement that would be accompanied by a truce, with a Hamas delegation arriving in Cairo Thursday for negotiations. Egypt pressured Israel to also send representatives but Jerusalem refused to do so, according to Channel 12 news.

Referring to the Hamas terms as “delusional,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed them on Wednesday, arguing that to surrender to the terror group’s offer would be to invite disaster, and declaring that only military pressure would secure the release of the Israelis being held captive in the Gaza Strip. However, he did not rule out further indirect negotiations.

US President Joe Biden said Hamas’s reply was “a little over the top.”

But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that while some parts of the Hamas proposal were non-starters, it did create space for further negotiation.

“Israel will continue doing everything in its power to reach a deal, but the principle that we will not stop the fighting until all the goals of the war are achieved remains in effect,” said the Israeli official.

Protesters are gathering near the camp of the October 7th victims’ families in front of the Knesset while MKs and Ministers arrive on a persistent weekly protest calling for new elections and the return of the hostages, Jerusalem, February 5, 2024. (Ori Koren/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

“For now, all that is left to do is to apply pressure.”

Israel’s government is itself under pressure from families of hostages and others to find a way to secure their loved ones’ freedom, while the US has increasingly pushed for a pause in the fighting.

Netanyahu met with fellow war cabinet ministers Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at military headquarters in Tel Aviv Thursday night, followed by a summit of his full national security cabinet to discuss the negotiations.

Rafah awaits

Meanwhile, the Israeli official said that Blinken expressed concern over Israel expanding fighting to the southern Gaza city of Rafah during his talks with Netanyahu and the war cabinet a day earlier.

However, he stressed that there would be “no compromise” on toppling Hamas militarily and politically, which would mean operating in Rafah, which saw heavy Israeli bombardment Thursday.

Speaking at a press conference late Wednesday evening, Blinken said that “Israel has the responsibility, has the obligation to do everything possible to ensure that civilians are protected and that they get the assistance they need in the course of this conflict. Any military campaign, military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost in mind… And that’s especially true in the case of Rafah.”

A different Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday that the operation in Rafah will not be a large-scale assault by a full division like the operation in Khan Younis, but will instead be organized around targeted pinpoint raids.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with National Unity leader Minister Benny Gantz (not in frame), in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP)

The southern city, which has swelled with refugees since fighting began October 7, sits along Gaza’s border with Egypt.

A spokesperson for Egypt’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that Cairo was concerned over the prospect of a mass rush by Gazans to escape across the border when the Israel Defense Forces expands its operations.

Images in recent weeks circulating on social media have shown Egypt apparently fortifying its defenses at the border, with additional barbed wire and walls.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering in the Rafah area, amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis. The prospect of a ground operation in Rafah has raised fears about where the population would go to find safety. The United Nations said the town is becoming a “pressure cooker of despair.”

“We will do whatever we have to in Rafah,” said the Israeli official, “and we will do it with the necessary coordination with Egypt.”

Gallant said last week that after Israeli troops seize the southern city of Khan Younis, where much of the fighting has been focused in recent weeks, they will move on to Rafah. He did not give a time frame.

Netanyahu said Wednesday he had told the IDF to prepare to operate there.

Palestinians inspect the damage following Israeli strikes on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024 (Said Khatib/AFP)

War erupted on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst into Israel from the Gaza Strip, massacring 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting 253 people of all ages. Some were freed as part of a negotiated lull in November, and Israel believes about a fifth of the 132 remaining captives are dead, many of them killed on October 7.

Israel’s subsequent invasion of the Strip, aimed at eliminating Hamas and freeing its hostages, has left more than 27,000 Palestinians dead, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

The Hamas 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 over 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza, and 1,000 more terrorists inside Israeli territory on October 7. Two hundred and twenty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

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