Israel tells Egypt it’s giving hostage deal ‘last chance’ before launching Rafah op

Officials say Israel is willing to make further widespread concessions to secure a deal, but won’t allow Hamas to drag out talks in a bid to forestall assault on southern Gaza

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)

Talks between Israeli officials and a top-level Egyptian delegation sent to discuss Israel’s impending offensive in Rafah and efforts to reach a hostage deal with Hamas ended on Friday, with Israel reportedly warning that this was the “last chance” for a truce agreement before Israel launched its long-planned assault.

A senior Israeli official told Hebrew media that talks were “very good, focused, held in good spirits and progressed in all parameters.”

The official told Ynet that the Egyptians seem willing to pressure Hamas toward reaching a deal and that “in the background, there are very serious intentions from Israel to move ahead in Rafah.”

The Israeli official said Israel warned it would not agree to foot-dragging by Hamas, particularly its leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, on the hostage deal in a bid to forestall the Israel Defense Forces operation and noted that reserve forces have been called up. “This is the last chance before we go into Rafah,” the official said, according to Channel 12 news.

It’s a case of “either a deal in the near future, or Rafah,” the source said. Sinwar, the architect of the October 7 massacre, is widely believed to be hiding in the Hamas tunnel network in the Rafah area, with hostages in close proximity as human shields.

The official confirmed that Israel is prepared to settle for the release of fewer than the 40 living hostages as earlier proposed, but also that it will not agree to only 20 hostages being freed, as Hamas reportedly suggested in recent indirect contacts. Rather, said the report, Israel believes that Hamas holds 33 living hostages who meet the so-called “humanitarian” designation — that is, women, children, men aged over 50 and the sick — and is insisting that they all be freed.

A boy helps a vendor arrange his merchandise as he sets up before the rubble of a collapsed building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Channel 12 report said this could be a major sticking point if the mediation efforts make headway with Hamas, but stressed that, for now, that is not the case.

There was no mention in the report of whether this would be the first phase of a wider deal for all the hostages, of the length of the proposed accompanying truce, or of Hamas’s relentless demand that Israel halt the war altogether as a condition for any further hostage releases.

“This is part of what the negotiations are going to focus on now,” an unnamed Israeli official told Axios on Friday. “The number of days of the ceasefire will be linked to the number of hostages who will be released. If Hamas does want a humanitarian deal, Israel will not be the obstacle.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out ending the war until Hamas is destroyed as a military and governing force.

The official also said Israel was willing to make further major concessions like allowing the return of residents to northern Gaza, and possibly to do so without any checks to prevent Hamas members from returning with them. Israel also indicated a willingness to withdraw forces from a key corridor bisecting Gaza in two, Channel 12 said.

IDF troops operate at the entrance to a tunnel in the central Gaza Strip, in a handout image published April 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The report said the IDF has completed all its preparations for a Rafah operation, but that the government is stalling on coordinating such an offensive with the United States administration.

It also said, however, that numerous sources in the defense establishment feel strongly that “time is running out” for the hostages, that they must be the “top priority,” and the IDF can resume fighting at any time if it is required to pause in order for a hostage deal to be agreed and carried out.

Channel 12 quoted the unnamed defense sources as saying Netanyahu should be pushing a deal for the hostages as hard as he can, but fears opposition on the far-right flank of his coalition, notably from Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

It also said these defense sources regard tackling Hamas’s four battalions inside Rafah as less critical than securing the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah to prevent Hamas smuggling in arms and weapons materials in order to rearm. Israel and Egypt, it says, are coordinating on a sensor system along the so-called Philadelphi border corridor between Gaza and Egypt.

Finally, the report said, one reason for the still-delayed ground offensive in Rafah is concern that it will deepen international delegitimization of Israel.

Egypt’s top intelligence official, Abbas Kamel, led the delegation and planned to discuss with Israel a “new vision” for a prolonged ceasefire in Gaza, an Egyptian official said ahead of the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the mission freely.

As the war drags on and casualties mount, there has been growing international pressure for Hamas and Israel to reach an agreement, with the US pushing for a hostage-truce deal leading to a permanent ceasefire.

However, talks have been stalled for months, as both sides accuse each other of sabotaging potential deals.

Basem Naim, a Hamas leader who is a former Gaza health minister, speaks during a press conference in Cape Town on November 29. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)

Hamas has said it will not back down from its demands for a permanent ceasefire and full withdrawal of Israeli troops, both of which Israel has rejected. Israel says it will continue military operations until Hamas is defeated and the hostages are released, and that it will retain a security presence in Gaza afterward.

Ahead of the talks, senior Hamas official Basem Naim told the Associated Press that “there is nothing new from our side,” when asked about the negotiations.

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