Sinwar believes Gaza suffering will improve position in talks

Mossad: Hamas toughening demands for hostage deal, seeks Ramadan escalation

Spy agency says chief met CIA counterpart to advance deal, adds talks persist despite difficulties; Qatar reportedly threatens to expel Hamas leaders if they don’t accept deal

A composite image of CIA Director William Burns, left, speaking at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, on July 8, 2022; Mossad Director David Barnea, right, speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, on September 10, 2023. (AP/Susan Walsh; Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A composite image of CIA Director William Burns, left, speaking at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, on July 8, 2022; Mossad Director David Barnea, right, speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, on September 10, 2023. (AP/Susan Walsh; Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Mossad spy agency said Saturday that the Hamas terror group prefers an escalation of violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to a hostage deal, adding that Mossad chief David Barnea met CIA Director Bill Burns this weekend as part of efforts by mediators to reach a temporary truce.

In the rare statement, carried by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Mossad said Barnea met on Friday with his American counterpart, “as part of the ceaseless effort to advance another deal for the return of the hostages.” The meeting reportedly took place in Amman, Jordan.

“At this stage, Hamas is fortifying its position as if it is not interested in a deal, and it strives to ignite the region during Ramadan at the expense of the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip,” the Mossad said.

The Mossad added that “the talks and cooperation with the mediators continue all the time in an attempt to narrow the gaps and advance agreements.”

The statement came as US, Egyptian, and Qatari mediators scrambled to secure a six-week truce in the five-month-old war in Gaza before Ramadan. Those efforts have been ongoing for weeks and are based on a framework reached in Paris last month.

The Paris framework, thus far rejected by Hamas, would see 40 children, women, elderly and sick hostages released in the six-week first phase, in exchange for some 400 Palestinian security prisoners, with the possibility of further releases to be negotiated.

Israel has said any ceasefire must be temporary and that its goal remains the destruction of Hamas and the return of all hostages. The terror group says it will release the hostages it has been holding since October 7 only as part of a deal that ends the war.

Israel did not send a delegation to the latest round of truce talks in Cairo, after Hamas refused to provide a list of living hostages, and a Hamas delegation left on Thursday after expressing frustration with Israel’s positions, heading to Qatar for consultation with the group’s leadership.

People pass by a fence with photographs of Israelis who are being held hostage in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terrorist group, in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

An unnamed senior Israeli source close to the negotiations was quoted by Channel 12 on Saturday saying that Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar “believes that the more his [Gaza] public suffers, the greater the pressure on Israel and the better the terms he’ll get in negotiations [on a hostage deal]. A deal takes two sides, and right now the other side doesn’t want one.”

Israel and Hamas have blamed each other for the lack of agreement on a deal that would require Hamas to free some of the hostages it still holds in exchange for a 40-day truce. Some Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel would also be released. Mediators hoped to reach an agreement by the start of Ramadan, set to begin early in the week, but that appears unlikely.

Officials briefed on the talks told the New York Times Thursday that Hamas has “backed away” from the proposed agreement in Paris and, in addition to a permanent ceasefire, is also demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, the return of displaced Gazans to their homes in the northern part of the enclave, and “provisions” for Gazans.

Israel had already agreed to the Paris principles, which called for a temporary truce of six weeks, a “redeployment” of Israeli troops within Gaza — but not a complete withdrawal — and for Israel to enable the return of Palestinian women and children to northern Gaza, from where hundreds of thousands evacuated during the fighting, and which Israel has kept cut off from the rest of the enclave.

One regional official told the New York Times that the main sticking point is Hamas’s demand for a permanent ceasefire during or after the three phases of the hostage releases proposed in Paris, which Israel has refused.

Meanwhile, Qatar is threatening to expel Hamas’s leaders from the country if they don’t agree to a hostage deal, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing an unnamed Hamas official and Egyptian officials. Qatar, a key mediator between Israel and the terror group, hosts Hamas’s political bureau, including its leader, Ismail Haniyeh.

Husam Badran, a senior official of the terror group who is based in Doha, denied the claim. He told the WSJ that without a deal, violence will escalate during Ramadan, set to begin Sunday and Monday in some parts of the world.

“We didn’t declare negotiations have been stopped. We are the party most keen to stop this war,” he said.

Badran stated Hamas’s conditions for a hostage deal include a permanent ceasefire, a return of displaced civilians to northern Gaza, boosted humanitarian aid, and for Israel to pull out its troops from the Strip.

Israel has vowed to continue its offensive to eliminate the terror group in response to the October 7 massacre, and free all the hostages.

Channel 12 reported Saturday that Nissan Alon, the IDF’s representative in the hostage deal negotiations, requested greater leeway in negotiating the terms of a deal, but the request was rejected by the political leadership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz all felt greater flexibility was not appropriate given Hamas’s current obdurate stance, the report said.

File: Hamas political bureau member Husam Badran, center, speaks at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza city on August 3, 2018. (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)

Badran told the WSJ that Netanyahu was to blame for a lack of a breakthrough in the talks, claiming he “refuses to deal with anything on the table.”

“Netanyahu is the most dangerous [person] for the stability of this region. He is the fire starter,” he said.

The prime minister has called Hamas’s demands “delusional.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday it was up to Hamas to agree to the proposed temporary ceasefire that would allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and pave the way for talks on an “enduring resolution” to the conflict.

Senior Biden administration officials on Thursday also said that it was Hamas holding up the deal, as it was refusing to release the sick, elderly, and female hostages that it’s holding in Gaza.

“There could be at least a six-week ceasefire today if Hamas would agree to release a defined category of vulnerable hostages, including women, the elderly, the sick and the wounded,” said one of the officials, who all briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. “The onus right now is on Hamas.”

“The fundamental element on [Hamas’s] side is releasing the sick, the elderly and the women. That is right now the holdup,” a second official added.

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both called in separate addresses this past week on Hamas to agree to the deal on the table.

Smoke billows after Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis as seen from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on March 9, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says at least 30,878 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched a murderous rampage across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages. Hamas’s figures cannot be verified, do not differentiate between combatants and civilians, and include some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle since October.

Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

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.

Four hostages were released prior to that, and three were rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

AFP contributed to this report.

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