Families of the hundreds of hostages held in the Gaza Strip were joined by activists in Tel Aviv Friday for a Shabbat service marking five weeks since they were abducted in Hamas’s brutal attack on southern Israel.
At the same time, Israel’s major news networks reported Friday evening that senior Israeli officials were cautiously optimistic that a hostage deal has become likelier in recent days, though no agreement has yet been reached.
Over 240 hostages are believed held in Gaza since October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists streamed across the border and killed some 1,400 people, the majority of them civilians, in peaceful communities near the border and at a rave.
Channels 12 and 13 reported, citing unnamed top officials, that any deal would likely include the release of captives in the high dozens, and possibly about 100, with Jerusalem unlikely to agree to anything less.
Both networks noted that Israeli officials believe the intensive ground campaign by Israeli ground forces is increasing pressure on Hamas and making a deal more likely.
“We are headed to a turbulent week or two, among the leadership and the Israeli public,” one senior figure told Channel 12. “There will be very difficult decisions because a deal will not include all those kidnapped. Israelis’ resilience will be put to the test, turn our stomachs and test our nerves.”
Channel 12 noted that Israel has made clear to all interlocuters that under any circumstances, a deal will be followed by a continuation of the Israeli campaign.
At the same time, asked about the state of hostage talks, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari warned Friday evening that “These processes are complex, they will still take time.” He urged the public not to rely on reports that don’t come directly from the authorities.
“We will not miss a single opportunity to return hostages home,” he said.
Speaking to Channel 12, Daniel Lifshitz, whose grandmother Yocheved was released by Hamas last month but whose grandfather remains captive, said: “We want to know every day that the country is doing everything… that the hostages are at the top of the agenda.
“The security of Israel depends on returning the hostages — the personal security of each and every one here and the country’s future is the return of those hostages… that is the possible moment of victory, of hope, of rehabilitation for the country,” he said.
Lifshitz added: “It has to be in the mind of every person in the country. Every person in Israel should feel like their own relatives were abducted. As though the people in Gaza are the relatives of us all. They are our sons, our grandparents, our parents, our siblings.”
Thursday night saw some relatives meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara.
According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, she told the families: “I know that you have not had a moment’s rest. Every day that goes by without your loved ones is an endless pain. My heart is with you; all of our hearts are with you.”
She promised the families that the prime minister “will do everything to bring our hostages, your loved ones, safely back home.”
Yael Angel, whose nephew Ofir is held hostage in Gaza, told Channel 12 that the meeting was “very respectable” and lasted some two-and-a-half hours.
Angel on Channel 12 also referred to former US president Barack Obama’s criticism of Israel’s response to the Hamas massacres. “Two hundred and forty people are held hostage and the world is silent, and there are ‘buts’ and ‘perhapses’. I’d like to see Mr. Obama if one of his daughters was held hostage by Hamas. In two days, she’d be out, and there’d be no ‘buts.’”
A US official told The Associated Press Thursday that Mossad chief David Barnea and CIA Director William Burns were in Qatar to discuss efforts to win the release of hostages in Gaza with the Qatari prime minister.
The same day, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group published a propaganda video of two Israeli hostages and indicated it may release them, without providing any timeline. Israeli dismissed the clips as “psychological terror.”
Barnea and Burns met with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the official told AP. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
According to a Reuters report, citing a “source briefed on the meeting,” the three sat down together a day after Qatari officials met with Hamas political leaders — most of whom are based in Doha — to discuss a potential deal.
An official also confirmed the existence of such negotiations to AFP, saying that “talks have been progressing well towards a deal in the past few days.”
On Thursday evening, PIJ published an apparently coerced propaganda video featuring captives Hannah Katzir, 77, and Yagil Yaakov, 13, both kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7.
The pair speak in Hebrew in the video, accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of causing the ongoing situation and praising the ostensibly humane behavior of their captors. The video marked the first time Islamic Jihad has posted footage of hostages it is holding.
PIJ claimed Thursday that it was prepared to release the two for “humanitarian and medical reasons” once the “appropriate measures are met.”
IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in response that the military “is not passing up any opportunity and we will not pass up any opportunity to bring the hostages home.”
Hagari added that it was significant to see a “sign of life” from the two captives, but slammed the video and the PIJ claim that it would release them at an unstated time as “psychological terror.”
He urged the families of the captives and the public not to listen to media reports and rumors about hostage releases or rescues, and said the IDF would update the families with any real news.
The Qatar discussions reportedly included the possibility of the release of hostages in exchange for a pause in fighting in Gaza, as well as potentially allowing fuel in, something Israel has refused to do so far, saying it is crucial for Hamas’s fighting capabilities.
Burns was in Israel earlier this week for the first time since the outbreak of war, and also stopped in the UAE and Egypt during his regional tour.
Reports swirled on Wednesday of an imminent deal brokered by Qatar for the release of 10-15 hostages in exchange for a pause of several days in the fighting. But little materialized from the reports, and Israeli officials have repeatedly sought to dismiss them.
Netanyahu rejected the reports as “idle rumors” late Wednesday night, repeating again on Thursday that there will be “no ceasefire without the release of our hostages.” His statement left open the possibility of brief humanitarian pauses, as opposed to a long-term ceasefire, as well as the potential for a deal for a certain number of hostages rather than all of them.
On Thursday, President Isaac Herzog said there was “no real proposal that is viable from Hamas’s side” on the table for the release of hostages.
“Whilst there are many, many people who are third parties who are sending optimistic messages to the newsreels, I’m saying outright: According to my knowledge, up to now, there is no real substantial information that is showing any real offer of any process on the table,” he told NBC News in an interview.
Agencies contributed to this report.