Israel denies hostage talks advancing as lawmakers balk at talk of military respite

Smotrich says reported outline of agreement has ‘big and dangerous question marks,’ after several foreign outlets report on proposal to free captives for extended pause in fighting

Women block a road as they protest calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Jerusalem, January 24, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Women block a road as they protest calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Jerusalem, January 24, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli officials on Wednesday pushed back against reports that negotiations with Hamas over a potential hostage release deal were advancing, accusing the terror group of digging in on its positions and blocking any potential compromise.

Reports in international news outlets Tuesday indicated that Israel and Hamas were moving toward an agreement that would see some captives held in Gaza released while Israel pauses its military campaign for several weeks or longer, though a number of senior right-wing politicians indicated that they would not be comfortable with the Israel Defense Forces laying down its arms.

Unnamed diplomatic officials cited by various Hebrew media sources said any reports of breakthroughs in talks are “fake,” and that the gaps between the sides are actually widening.

“Reports of an agreement in principle to a ceasefire are not correct. There are very large gaps and there is no advancement in talks,” an Israeli official was quoted as telling the Ynet news site. “It’s very complicated. Hamas is constantly hardening its position.”

Similar comments were carried by every mainstream Hebrew-language news outlet, indicated they likely carried the government’s imprimatur.

According to a Reuters report on Tuesday citing three sources, Israel and Hamas have broadly agreed that a monthlong ceasefire could see Israeli hostages exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

Citing Egyptian sources, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Hamas told international mediators it is open to releasing some hostages, including all remaining civilian women and children, if there is a “significant pause” in the fighting.

Left: Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, Gaza City, April 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana) Right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, December 10, 2023. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

And a Washington Post columnist, citing “knowledgeable Israeli and US sources,” suggested Wednesday that negotiators are working on a three-phase deal, which would first see the release of around 10 women and children, followed by a phase in which around 40 wounded and elderly hostages as well as female IDF soldiers would be freed, followed by a third phase with the remaining hostages, with each stage accompanied by the release of groups of Palestinian prisoners.

A Palestinian official told Reuters that Israel has sought to negotiate one stage at a time, but Hamas is seeking “a package deal” that agrees on a permanent ceasefire before any hostages are released during the initial phase.

However, the Wall Street Journal report indicated that Hamas had softened somewhat on that sticking point.

Israel’s government has vowed to continue fighting until Hamas is completely dismantled and its hostages freed, following the October 7 attack in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israeli communities, massacring some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting another 253.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted Wednesday morning that he was “in favor of bringing home the hostages, [but] against a bad deal.”

Fellow hardliner Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, issued a statement calling for the security cabinet to be convened, writing that “stopping the war at this sensitive stage could endanger the entire operation… there are big and dangerous question marks over a deal like this.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, tweeted a video Wednesday morning of him meeting with IDF soldiers a day earlier, writing: “The only option is complete victory.”

Limor Son Har-Melech, an MK from Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party, told the Knesset channel that she did not support a military halt.

“We’re dealing with tough questions, but we cannot stop the fighting,” she said.

The government has come under increasing pressure to reach a deal for the release of the approximately 130 hostages and bodies of those killed still remaining in captivity.

Israel reportedly offered this week a two-month ceasefire during which Hamas would release the hostages in stages in exchange for Palestinian security prisoners. Under the proposal, Yahya Sinwar and other top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries. An Egyptian official said Tuesday that Hamas rejected such a proposal.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Israel also offered a three-month ceasefire, a partial military withdrawal and the ability for Gazans to move freely around the enclave in exchange for the release of all hostages.

Israel and Hamas are speaking through mediators, not directly.

The latest round of international shuttle diplomacy started on December 28 and has narrowed disagreements about the length of an initial ceasefire to around 30 days, after Hamas had first proposed a pause of several months, according to one source cited by Reuters, identified as an official briefed on the negotiations.

Troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released on January 23, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Over the past few weeks, US and Qatari mediators have reportedly drawn the two sides closer to agreeing to a 30-day process, which would include the release of all hostages, entry of more aid to Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners, an official told Reuters.

Despite the difficulty of bridging the gap in positions, one of the sources, briefed on the discussions, described the talks as intensive and said a deal could be struck “at any minute.”

Qatar and Washington were instrumental in negotiating a weeklong truce in November that led to the release of more than 100 hostages. In return for the release of those hostages, Israel agreed to free around 240 Palestinian prisoners and to an increase in humanitarian aid entering Gaza.

However, Hamas is seeking guarantees that Israel will not restart the fighting after the truce, a US source briefed on the matter and the Palestinian official said.

Relatives and supporters of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas attend a protest calling for their release outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2024. Hebrew on the hands with fake blood reads, “Time is running out”. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 28 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. The bodies of 11 hostages, including three mistakenly killed by the military, have been recovered so far from the Strip.

Hamas has also been 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.

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