Egyptian negotiating team to visit Israel Friday for talks

Israel said willing to accept release of fewer than 40 hostages in truce’s first phase

War cabinet authorized negotiators to discuss release of just 20 hostages in first phase, Hebrew media reports, before citing senior official who insists that number is actually 33

Israelis march during a protest by the relatives of hostages held in Gaza by Palestinian terrorists, outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2024, to call for government action to release the hostages. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israelis march during a protest by the relatives of hostages held in Gaza by Palestinian terrorists, outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2024, to call for government action to release the hostages. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel is reportedly willing to come down from its original demand for Hamas to release 40 living hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza after the terror group refused an offer crafted by Qatari, Egyptian and US negotiators that would have seen it free that many abductees.

Several Hebrew media sites reported Thursday evening that Israel was now willing to accept the release of just 20 hostages in the first phase of the truce deal, so long as those released are either women, men over 50 years old and those who are seriously ill. The last proposal envisioned the release of 40 hostages in those categories, but Hamas claimed that it does not hold that many hostages in those categories who are still alive.

Due to the ensuing deadlock, Israel’s war cabinet on Thursday authorized the country’s negotiating team to discuss this more flexible approach with an Egyptian delegation set to arrive in Tel Aviv on Friday for additional talks on the matter, the Hebrew news sites said.

Shortly after those reports, the same news outlets carried statements from an unnamed senior Israeli official who denied that the number being entertained was 20, insisting that it was actually 33, which represents the updated Israeli figure for the number of female, elderly and sick hostages whom it still believes are alive in Gaza. Hamas has insisted that the number is closer to 20.

In the previous round, Israeli negotiators reportedly insisted that 40 living hostages fit the description of female, elderly or sick, and if Hamas insisted that this wasn’t true, it should release abductees from other categories — men and soldiers under the age of 50 — to meet the benchmark of 40.

Hebrew media sites also reported that Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, and the IDF’s hostage envoy Nitzan Alon, presented proposals during the Thursday war cabinet meeting for ways Jerusalem could further bend its position in order to secure an agreement with Hamas in the talks.

Relatives of hostages held in Gaza Strip and supporters protest outside a war cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 25, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The reports did not specify how long the truce would last in exchange for the release of 20 or 33 hostages. The US says that the previous proposal rejected by Hamas would have seen a six-week truce in the first phase, and it was unclear whether that would be shortened in exchange for Israel requesting the release of fewer hostages.

US officials have said that the previous proposal would have seen a second phase during which men and soldiers under 50 would be released, but no timeframe has been publicly specified. The third phase was then to see the release of the bodies of hostages being held by Hamas coupled with a permanent end to the war, according to US officials.

The reports of Israel coming down from its offer came as speculation picked up that the IDF was nearing the start of its long-pledged operation to dismantle the remaining Hamas stronghold in Rafah. It has said it will evacuate the over one million Palestinians sheltering there first, which it has not begun to do, but an increase in IDF activity was identified on the southern border with Gaza, leading to intensified speculation that an evacuation of Rafah could be near, despite US opposition to the offensive.

Preparations for a Rafah operation may also be aimed at leaning on Hamas to accept a deal. The terror group published a video of one of the hostages it is holding on Wednesday for the first time in nearly two months, a potential sign that it, too, is looking to strike a deal. The latest clip featured American-Israeli hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who has become one of the most well-known abductees due to the activism of his parents on behalf of his release.

Shortly after the reports emerged of Israel easing its demands, far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who is not part of the war cabinet — tweeted his stark opposition to the approach and called for Mossad chief David Barnea to be removed as Israel’s chief hostage negotiator.

“The time has come for the Mossad to resume dealing with what it was trained to do: Taking out Hamas leaders across the world and not [taking part] in negotiations that have been conducted irresponsibly and harm Israel’s security,” Smotrich wrote.

Israeli-American hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, held captive in Gaza since October 7, in a Hamas propaganda video released on April 24, 2024. (Screenshot: Telegram)

“From now on, we should only speak to Hamas with shelling and bombs,” Smotrich added, calling for Israeli forces to enter Rafah “as quickly and intensely as possible and to continue throughout the entire enclave until [Hamas’s] total destruction.”

The security cabinet would be able to approve a hostage deal without the support of Smotrich and fellow far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir. Smotrich backed the last hostage deal in November, while Ben Gvir opposed it, and it went ahead, with the release of 105 hostages. There could again well be a majority in support of the reportedly eased proposal, even if both of them vote against it. But Ben Gvir has increasingly spoken of collapsing the government if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heeds too many of Hamas’s demands in the talks, and the premier has long been sensitive to the concerns of his far-right partners in what critics say has contributed to the negotiations’ failures thus far.

Relatives of the 133 remaining hostages and their supporters, along with anti-government activists, have intensified protests urging a deal in recent weeks, including again on Thursday in Tel Aviv. They demanded an immediate hostage deal and accused Netanyahu of prolonging the war in order to avoid agreeing to terms that might be unpopular with his right-wing base.

Demonstrators blocked the road and lit torches outside the Defense Ministry on Begin Street in Tel Aviv, calling for an immediate deal to release their loved ones.

Iris Weinstein-Haggai, whose parents both died in captivity in Gaza, said: “We have to do everything to help the deceased come home to a respectful burial and the ones who are alive to… reunite with their families.”

Earlier Thursday, a senior Biden administration official briefing reporters said, “Right now, the core truth is that there’s a deal on the table that meets nearly all of the demands that Hamas has had,” referencing the previous proposal that would have seen roughly 40 hostages released in phase one of the deal.

Relatives of hostages held in Gaza Strip and supporters protest outside a war cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 25, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The view of the Egyptians and the Qataris and those who are fairly deeply involved is that the answer that came back from inside Gaza was totally not constructive,” the official said.

The official noted that Hamas has sent “signals” seeking to clarify that it has not actually rejected the latest offer and that it is ready to sit down and negotiate further but he said he was unsure whether this was genuine or that the terror group was just trying to drag things out further. “We’re going to test that proposition over the coming days.”

“We do see some indications that there might be an avenue here, but I’m not totally confident because a lot of times we hear things from leaders of Hamas outside Gaza that do not reflect the Hamas leadership inside,” the senior administration official said, adding that even Hamas’s leaders abroad acknowledge that the terror group’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar is the one calling the shots, not the leaders in Qatar.

The official revealed to reporters that Israel had agreed in the previous proposal to allow the unrestricted return of Palestinians to northern Gaza.

The official was asked about comments from Hamas officials claiming that Israel has refused this demand. In the past, Israel had indeed indicated resistance to the unrestricted return of Palestinians to areas the IDF cleared in northern Gaza, due to fears that it would lead to a resurgence of Hamas.

But the senior administration official said Israel has, in fact, agreed to an unrestricted return as part of the hostage deal that Hamas rejected.

Security forces evacuate National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a protest for the release of hostages held by terror groups in Gaza, Jerusalem, April 24, 2024, following the release of a Hamas propaganda video by hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The official clarified that the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza would not be immediate, as conditions have to be put in place over the first several weeks of the truce to ensure the safety of civilians, given the level of destruction there. “That means shelter, that means assistance, that means a UN mission to make sure things are ready.”

Asked whether a sticking point had been Hamas’s demand for a permanent ceasefire, which Israel doesn’t seem interested in accepting, the senior Biden administration official indicated to reporters that the previous proposal accepted by Israel would have effectively seen such a result.

“It’s an immediate six-week ceasefire, leading into a second phase and then a permanent restoration of calm,” the official said, adding that the US would serve as a “guarantor along with Egypt and Qatar to ensure those things happen.”

Jacob Magid and AFP contributed to this report.

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