Mossad chief says sides only negotiating to free 40 hostages for now — report

David Barnea says no possibility of securing freedom for all captives in single agreement with Hamas; terror group reportedly turns down US proposal, working on own suggestion

Relatives of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip attend the Knesset lobby for their release, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 10, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Relatives of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip attend the Knesset lobby for their release, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 10, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Israel’s top official involved in negotiations for a deal to free hostages held in Gaza told cabinet ministers that freeing all 133 captives and remains in a single truce agreement would be impossible, and at best 40 people could be freed, according to a Wednesday report.

The comment from Mossad chief David Barnea, according to Channel 12 news, added to a swirl of reports surrounding ongoing indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas, including indications that the terror group had rejected a US proposal for a phased deal and would instead offer its own plan.

“At this point in time, we can’t get them all back,” Barnea told ministers during a high-level meeting discussing the negotiations Tuesday night, Channel 12 reported. He said the offer on the table now was “a humanitarian deal for 40 hostages,” referring to women, children, the elderly, or those requiring medical attention.

Reports have indicated that the sides are negotiating a phased deal in which those listed above would be the first freed, followed by further Israeli concessions in exchange for female soldiers, and then male troops and civilian men and finally the remains of the approximately 30 hostages thought to have been killed.

According to the report, Barnea was responding to Minister David Amsalem, who said he would oppose a phased deal. Amsalem confirmed his stance in an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, saying freeing only some of the hostages would make it harder to get the rest out.

The TV report said the ministers were given to understand that there was “a low probability” of Hamas accepting the current US proposal for a hostage-truce deal.

Negotiations taking place in Cairo mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar have aimed to reach a deal that would secure at least a temporary, weeks-long ceasefire during which hostages would be released. Israel would be expected to further increase humanitarian aid to Gaza and release hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners it has jailed, including murderers.

Mossad director David Barnea speaks during the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) World Summit in the central coastal city of Herzliya on September 10, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP, File)

While Hamas has insisted that any ceasefire be permanent and all troops withdraw from Gaza, reports have indicated that the terror group would be willing to go ahead with freeing the first 40 hostages before Israel commits to ending the war and pulling all troops out.

However, a demand that Gazans be allowed unfettered access to return to the north of the Strip, which Israel opposes, remains a key sticking point, according to officials.

“If there’s no choice but to return the residents of northern Gaza in order to get the hostages back, then that must be done,” Transportation Minister Miri Regev was quoted as saying at the meeting. “They’ll go back [to the north] anyway in the end.”

Israeli officials worry that a full return to the north of the Strip, where the army spent months pushing Hamas out of its power base of Gaza City, will give the terror group an opening to reestablish control.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin said he was opposed to caving on the demand, Channel 12 reported. “It will erode the achievements of the war,” he said.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset debate on the state budget, December 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

War erupted on October 7 when Palestinian terror group Hamas carried out a devastating attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. Another 253 people were kidnapped during the onslaught, some of whom were freed during a weeklong truce in November. Another 129 people abducted on October 7 remain captive along with four others held for nearly a decade. Israel believes at least 36 of the captives are no longer alive.

Israeli officials told Reuters that Jerusalem had agreed to concessions on the return of Palestinians to the north of the enclave but believes Hamas does not want to strike a deal.

Two officials with knowledge of the talks said that under the US proposal for a truce, Israel would allow the return of 150,000 Palestinians to north Gaza with no security checks.

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated handout photo published April 10, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Officials also said Israel was requiring Hamas to give a list of female, elderly, and sick hostages it still holds alive.

According to reports carried by several Israeli television networks Wednesday, Hamas has claimed that it has access to fewer than 40 living captives who are not male soldiers or men of military age, and therefore would lower the number of hostages it is willing to release.

The Kan broadcaster, which described the issue as the biggest obstacle in the ongoing negotiations, quoted an Israeli official insisting Hamas does in fact have 40 captives who meet the criteria for release.

A senior diplomatic official was quoted by Channel 12 news accusing Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar “of constantly dragging his feet and opposing an agreement.”

The Wall Street Journal, citing mediators, reported Wednesday that Hamas has rejected the US proposal and will instead put out its own “roadmap” for ending the war in Gaza.

The paper reported that Hamas’s main issue is that the US proposal does not include a reference to ending the war. The group will put out its own proposal instead later this week, based on an earlier proffer, the paper reported.

An Israeli official quoted by the Journal said Jerusalem was not totally behind the US proposal either, which it saw as favoring Hamas too much, but was willing to use the offer as the basis for talks.

The official said Israel is open to using the Hamas counterproposal as the basis for “serious negotiations,” so long as the proposal advances efforts.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Doha-based political bureau chief of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, speaks on a televised speech on the occasion of Quds (Jerusalem) Day on April 3, 2024. (Hamas Media Office/AFP)

An earlier report from the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, quoting “sources involved in the ongoing negotiations,” said Hamas has told Qatar and Egypt that it is not interested in any further discussion unless its demands are met.

“Arab and international parties will not succeed in amending the position,” a source told Al-Akhbar.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh insisted that the death of three of his sons in an Israeli airstrike would also not influence Hamas’s position.

Speaking to Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, Haniyeh suggested that the strike, which also killed four of his grandchildren, was an attempt to shift Hamas’s negotiating stance.

“If they think that this will force Hamas to change its positions, they are delusional,” he said.

A man gestures in front of the car in which three sons of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh were reportedly killed in an Israeli air strike in al-Shati camp, west of Gaza City on April 10, 2024. (AFP)

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Defense Minister Yoav Gallant were made aware of the plan to carry out the strike ahead of time and it wasn’t discussed by the war cabinet, an Israeli source told The Times of Israel.

The IDF said the three sons were Hamas terrorists and were “en route to carry out terror activity”  when they were targeted.

As a result of the strike, the ongoing negotiations for a temporary truce in the fighting and the release of hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza may be jeopardized, the official said, adding that it was still too early to know the full implications.

Netanyahu spoke Wednesday with families of four Arab hostages to mark the start of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, the Ynet outlet reported.

People walk by photographs of Israeli civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, April 9, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A statement on behalf of Netanyahu said the prime minister “talked about the efforts to return the hostages, the hope for good news, and his concern for the abductees and their families.”

Netanyahu also spoke of “commitment to the return of all the hostages and unceasing action on this issue,” the statement said.

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