ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Mossad, Shin Bet chiefs reportedly to hold Cairo hostage talks if Hamas eases demands

Terror group must drop insistence on permanent ceasefire and withdrawal of troops before delegation will agree to go to Egypt, report says

Ronen Bar head of the Shin Bet security services (L) with Mossad chief David Barnea at the annual IDF memorial ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War at Yad La-Shiryon,  September 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)
Ronen Bar head of the Shin Bet security services (L) with Mossad chief David Barnea at the annual IDF memorial ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War at Yad La-Shiryon, September 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Israel is set to send negotiators to discuss a hostage release deal with senior US, Egyptian, and Qatari officials in Cairo this week on condition that Hamas backs down from its maximalist demands for an agreement, it was reported Saturday.

As part of its response to a negotiated framework, Hamas demanded Tuesday that Israel, among other things, release at least 1,500 Palestinian security prisoners, withdraw its troops fully from Gaza, eventually agree to a permanent ceasefire, and take steps to reduce its sovereignty on the Temple Mount — demands rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “delusional.”

Mossad spy agency chief David Barnea, Shin Bet security agency chief Ronen Bar, and Nitzan Alon, who is commanding intelligence efforts to find the abductees, will lead the delegation to meet with CIA Director Bill Burns, Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, and Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel on Tuesday, two Israeli officials told the Walla news site.

“If there is a change of course, we will go,” one of the officials said, who added that Israel was in contact with Egyptian and Qatari mediators to ensure understandings can be reached with Hamas before talks are set to begin on Tuesday.

According to reports Friday, Israel is willing to accept talks based on the original Paris framework — an outline for a humanitarian pause in the fighting drafted last month by top officials from the US, Israel, Qatar, and Egypt.

War cabinet members decided to draw up a formal response to Hamas’s counterproposal, which conflicts with Israel’s goal of toppling the terror group’s regime in the Strip, Channel 12 news reported Saturday.

Protesters call for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

The Paris framework reportedly envisioned a three-phase humanitarian pause, with 35 to 40 Israeli hostages — women, men older than 60 and those with serious medical conditions — released during the first six-week phase. Israeli soldiers and the bodies of killed hostages would be released in the second and third phases.

Details regarding the latter phases, as well as the number and identities of Palestinian security prisoners who would be released by Israel, were to be discussed in subsequent negotiations if the sides both agreed to the Paris proposal. Other reports presented different versions of the framework, which has not been officially published.

The war cabinet discussed the Hamas response further Thursday night. Ministers agreed that Israel would not accept another two of the Hamas demands — that the IDF withdraw its forces from the corridor that splits the northern and southern Gaza Strip, and allow for the return of civilians to northern Gaza during the first stage of the pause, the Axios news site reported. However, it would be willing to discuss withdrawing troops from the major Gaza population centers during the pause.

This position was passed along to the mediators, along with Israel’s rejection of Hamas’s demand that language be added to the agreement pertaining to a permanent ceasefire, Axios said, citing an official who said Israel did not want to commit to refraining from resuming strikes against Hamas after the deal was implemented.

Israel also informed the mediators that it would not discuss a demand included by Hamas for Israel to “lift the siege over Gaza,” the official was quoted as saying. The report said Israel also told the mediators the number of security prisoners Hamas was demanding was not reasonable, as were all demands not related to the Gaza war.

The Channel 12 news report said the war cabinet agreed to insist that the release of “heavy” Palestinian security prisoners — apparently meaning those convicted of murder and other grave offenses — be pushed to a later stage of the deal.

File: The war cabinet meets at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters on January 25, 2024. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

National Unity ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot requested that Israel’s response be formally drafted and sent immediately to the Egyptian and Qatari mediators, the TV report said.

Netanyahu rejected the request, instead saying that he wanted to bring the response to the full cabinet, a move that will likely delay the process by several days, the network said, while noting that it was also less likely to be approved given the many hardline ministers who oppose making significant concessions to Hamas in exchange for the hostages.

It was unclear how that squared with the Axios report saying Israel did in fact pass along a series of responses to the mediators. Channel 12 subsequently said Israel’s response was passed along verbally to the mediators, not formally in writing.

As the government continued to resist Hamas’s demands, hostages’ relatives and their supporters held nationwide protests Saturday night urging an immediate agreement, while some called for elections amid growing frustration with the government.

It is believed that 132 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 one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also 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.

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