Israel said conveying message to Sinwar: Either free 33 hostages in a deal soon, or IDF enters Rafah

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)
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)

Reporting on today’s talks between Israel’s hostage deal negotiators and a visiting delegation of Egyptian mediators, Channel 12 news quotes an unnamed Israeli source as saying Israel has made plain to the Egyptians — and by extension to Gaza’s Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar — that this is the “last moment” for a deal because, otherwise, the IDF will begin its ground operation in Rafah.

The source further says that Israel is not prepared to let Sinwar drag out the negotiations. It’s a case of “either a deal in the near future, or Rafah.” 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 report confirms 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, says 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.

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

There is 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.

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

The report reiterates that Israel, as part of a deal, is now willing to allow residents to return to northern Gaza, and possibly to do so without any checks to prevent Hamas members from returning with them. It says Israel may also agree to withdraw IDF forces from the corridor it has established across the entire width of the strip, dividing northern and southern Gaza.

It says the IDF has completed all its preparations for a Rafah operation, but that the government is stalling on coordinating such an offensive with the US administration.

It also says, 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 quotes 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 says 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 Philadelphi border corridor.

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

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