Israel to decide on sending team to hostage talks amid cautious signs of progress

Gallant tells Biden envoy Brett McGurk that Israel will give its negotiators more leeway; official says war cabinet, security cabinet to hash out whether to send team to Paris

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meeting with US envoy Brett McGurk, February 22, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meeting with US envoy Brett McGurk, February 22, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Israel will likely decide late Thursday night on whether to send a negotiating team to Paris for a fresh round of hostage talks over the weekend, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, as reports signaled increased flexibility from the Hamas terror group.

The guardedly optimistic comments Thursday came as US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the region arrived in Israel for high-level talks around efforts to advance an elusive deal to pause fighting in Gaza and free over 100 hostages held by terrorists in the Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was slated to meet with Brett McGurk Thursday evening to discuss the potential hostage talks and a looming IDF operation in Rafah opposed by Washington and much of the international community.

Later in the evening, the war cabinet is scheduled to meet, followed by the full national security cabinet.

A decision on sending an Israeli team to Paris is likely to be made after the meetings, the official said.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel Wednesday evening that leaders remain cautious about the chances for a breakthrough in negotiations for a hostage deal.

In talks with McGurk Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel would “expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators.”

“At the same time, the IDF is preparing the continuation of intense ground operations,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with soldiers from the IDF’s Alpinist Unit, February 22, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Israeli official signaled to The Times of Israel Wednesday that firm evidence that the hostages indeed received medications sent as part of a Qatari-mediated deal would be an important indicator that there is a chance for success in the ongoing talks.

Qatar announced Tuesday that it had received confirmation from Hamas that the terror group had begun delivering the drugs to the abductees, a month after they were sent into the Strip as part of a deal for more aid for Gaza. France’s foreign ministry also confirmed the Qatari statement, but Israel has yet to see independent proof.

Hamas officials have been in Cairo for talks with Egyptian and Qatari mediators aimed at advancing hostage talks, which have been stuck since Netanyahu rejected what he said were “delusional” demands from the terror group seeking the release of thousands of inmates, including hundreds serving life sentences, and an end to the war in exchange for freeing the hostages. On Tuesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived in the Egyptian capital for talks, and a day later the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that “Hamas has softened its positions.”

Palestinian women and children look on as they stand at the structure of a heavily damaged building on February 22, 2024, following overnight Israeli air strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel has vowed to topple the terror group ruling Gaza after it sent thousands of terrorists into southern Israel on October; some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the onslaught and 253 others were kidnapped and taken into Gaza.

It is believed that 134 hostages abducted by Hamas remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Some others were released in other circumstances.

On Thursday, Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior official with the terror group, said there could be a breakthrough in the talks in the near future.

In an interview with the Egyptian Al-Ghad channel, Abu Marzouk indicated that the main obstacle for Hamas is Israel’s refusal to withdraw its ground forces from the Gaza Strip, especially from the north-south Salah al-Din axis and the coastal Rashid Street.

He reiterated that Hamas’s conditions for a ceasefire are a cessation of hostilities and the return of displaced people to northern Gaza. He added that the terror group demands the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners for every Israeli hostage and vowed that Hamas “will continue its struggle until victory or martyrdom” and will not lay down its weapons.

Activists wear masks depicting Israelis who are being held hostage in the Gaza Strip during a protest in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Also Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hamas was willing to accept the release of 3,000 prisoners in a potential hostage deal, dropping a previous demand that all women and minors in Israeli prisons be released.

The report, citing Egyptian officials, said Hamas was still seeking the release of terrorists serving long sentences.

Hamas also demanded that discussion of a permanent ceasefire begin at the start of a six-week truce, with hostages only being released if such talks move ahead.

Despite the sides still remaining far apart, there have been signals from the Israeli side that negotiations may be moving ahead, including the cabinet considering sending a team to Paris.

If Israel does decide to send a delegation, the summit in Paris would be attended by the same officials as the meeting in late January — Mossad chief David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and CIA chief Bill Burns — according to a Channel 12 report.

On Wednesday, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said that a new hostage deal between Israel and Hamas could be in the works,  but if the sides fail to reach an agreement Israel will go ahead with its plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah over Ramadan.

War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, on February 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz told reporters during a press conference at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv that there were “initial signs that indicate the possibility of moving forward” on a new framework for a hostage deal.

He pledged to “leave no stone unturned” in the effort to free those kidnapped on October 7.

The government is under growing pressure from families of hostages and their allies to reach a deal with the terror group, citing “hellish” conditions reported by those freed.

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