PM denies deliberately delaying delegation's departure to Doha

Mossad chief prepares to head to Qatar as hostage-truce deal talks due to resume

Indirect talks between Israel and Hamas were slated to start Sunday but may be pushed off a day, with Israel’s war cabinet to meet Sunday evening; Saudi report: Still no breakthrough

File: Head of Mossad David Barnea attends a state ceremony marking 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, held at the military cemetery at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, on September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
File: Head of Mossad David Barnea attends a state ceremony marking 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, held at the military cemetery at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, on September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Stalled talks aimed at securing a temporary ceasefire and hostage deal in the war between Israel and Hamas were expected to restart in earnest in Qatar this week, possibly as soon as Sunday, according to Egyptian officials.

The talks were set to resume Sunday afternoon, though they could get pushed to Monday, the Egyptian officials said.

Hebrew media reports late Saturday indicated that Mossad chief David Barnea would only head to Qatar on Monday for the talks with Qatar’s prime minister and Egyptian officials, with the war cabinet scheduled to meet on Sunday night.

A source told Reuters that the discussions will cover the remaining gaps between Israel and Hamas, including the number of Palestinian prisoners who could potentially be released in exchange for the remaining Israeli hostages, as well as humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The talks would mark the first time both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders joined the indirect negotiations since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan earlier this week. Mediators had hoped to secure a six-week truce before then, but Hamas refused any deal that wouldn’t lead to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, a demand Israel flatly rejects.

In recent days, however, both sides have made moves aimed at getting the talks, which never fully broke off, back on track.

Hamas gave mediators a new proposal for a three-stage plan that would end the fighting, according to two Egyptian officials, one who is involved in the talks and a second who was briefed on them.

This handout distributed by the IDF on March 16, 2024, shows troops in the Gaza Strip amid the war against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

The first stage would be a six-week temporary ceasefire that would include the release of 35 hostages — women, those who are ill and older people — being held by terrorists in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel.

Hamas would also release at least five female soldiers in exchange for 50 prisoners, including some serving long sentences on terror charges, for each soldier.

Israeli forces would withdraw from two main roads in Gaza, let displaced Palestinians return to north Gaza and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the officials said.

In the second phase, the two sides would declare a permanent ceasefire and Hamas would free the remaining living hostages in exchange for more prisoners, the officials said.

In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the bodies it’s holding in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza and allowing reconstruction to start, the officials said.

Israel has adamantly ruled out a permanent ceasefire, and insists it will resume its declared goal of destroying Hamas once any hostage-truce deal is carried out.

Despite the expected resumption of talks in Doha, the Saudi television network Al-Arabiya, cited by the Ynet news site, reported Saturday that there was “still no breakthrough in the negotiations for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the release of hostages.”

The report cited unnamed Egyptian officials who said there were “obstacles” preventing an agreement.

“Hamas did not say how many hostages are still alive, and Israel will not agree to allow all the displaced Palestinians in the south of the Strip to return freely to the north,” an anonymous official told the outlet.

Illustrative: Members of the Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups release Israeli hostages to the Red Cross, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Hamas’s latest demands as “absurd,” but still agreed to send negotiators to Qatar for more talks.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s office said he had approved military operational plans for an offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah — a stick Jerusalem continues to hold over the terror group in efforts to reach a hostage release.

Rafah is believed to be Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza and Israel has been determined to dismantle the terror group’s last few battalions in the city, which also serves as a refuge to over a million Gazans displaced from other areas of the Palestinian enclave. The US and other Israeli allies have opposed an operation in the city that does not first include an evacuation of civilians and protections for non-combatants.

The public broadcaster Kan reported Saturday that Israeli officials have conveyed to Egyptian and Qatari counterparts that Israel was intent on operating in Rafah. According to the unsourced report, they said that should hostage talks break down, Israel may begin operations in Rafah, and the evacuation of civilians even before the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began last week.

Netanyahu’s office released a statement on Saturday night denying he was trying to delay the departure of the negotiating team to Qatar by not holding a cabinet meeting that night, saying he had already announced the War Cabinet and Security Cabinet would meet Sunday evening to discuss the Barnea-headed Israeli delegation’s mandate.

“The demand to convene the cabinet tonight is nothing more than artificial attempts to create headlines,” said the Prime Minister’s Office.

The statement appeared to be in response to reports that Netanyahu had sought to push off making a decision on the negotiating team’s mandate and refused to hold a meeting on Saturday on the matter.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right security cabinet member and key leader in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, called on the prime minister to stop the delegation from traveling to Qatar, claiming he had been proven right when opposing previous unsuccessful efforts to broker a deal.

“The delusional Hamas stance shows that the supporters of the deal in the war cabinet and security establishments have lost their way,” Smotrich wrote in a post on X.

“Netanyahu must order the delegation to remain in Israel and the IDF to enter Rafah immediately and increase the military pressure until Hamas is destroyed,” he continued. “Only in this will it make it possible to return the hostages.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s office, meanwhile, said he convened a “special meeting” Saturday evening on the efforts to return the hostages held in Gaza.

Attending the meeting were senior officials in the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet and representatives of the negotiations, the Defense Ministry added.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (in black) visits the western edge of Gaza City in the Strip on March 13, 2024. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

The war began on October 7 with Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel in which terrorists rampaged through the south, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 32 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas has also been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims that over 31,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the ongoing war. The number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both Hamas gunmen and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terror operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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