Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday told families of those held hostage by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip that he would not agree to a deal to release the captives if it posed a threat to Israel’s security. However, he also reassured them that political considerations would not stand in the way of a possible agreement, according to a Hebrew media report.
The meeting took place amid a flurry of reports on a potential deal being examined by Israel and Hamas to free the hostages.
As of Wednesday night, Hamas had not responded to an outline of a deal reportedly formulated and agreed to by Israeli, American, Egyptian and Qatar representatives in Paris on Sunday. Hamas is expected to convey its response via Qatar. Key elements of the deal have reportedly not been finalized, and a central sticking point — Hamas’s demand that the deal provide for a permanent ceasefire, something Israel has ruled out — is said to remain unresolved.
Channel 12 news said Wednesday evening that Mossad spy agency chief David Barnea presented the main principles of the nascent deal to ministers in the war cabinet on Monday, including the release of 35 women, sick, injured, and elderly hostages in a first phase, during which fighting would be halted for 35 days.
There would then be a further week-long pause in the fighting, during which negotiators would seek to finalize a second phase in which young men and hostages defined by Hamas as soldiers would be freed.
An earlier report, in the Washington Post, cited a 6-week pause, during which all hostages would be freed.
Netanyahu told the 18 representatives of hostages’ families that the survival of his hardline, right-wing government was not a factor in the decision-making process. He said that if a good deal came along, he would approve it, Channel 12 news reported, despite friction with far-right ministers who are threatening to bolt the government over the potential sacrifices Israel would need to make as part of the deal.
“If there is a deal that is good for the State of Israel, the return of captives and the achievement of the war’s goals, I will do it, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said, according to the report. “You asked about [potential opposition from within the] the coalition — there is no coalition.”
However, he then issued his own caveats.
“But if I am convinced, [if] I think that this [deal] will endanger the security of Israel, or it doesn’t achieve the goals that we want, I won’t do it,” he reportedly said.
Netanyahu reportedly declined to go into the specifics of the potential deal and was said to reject a request by the families that the release of hostages take place all at once and not in phases like in the previous weeklong series of releases in November.
“The return of hostages must be carried out in stages as part of a deal,” he said at the meeting, according to the report.
The prime minister also reportedly refused a request to designate the release of the hostages as his highest priority among the other goals of the war — above the elimination of Hamas, and the demilitarization of Gaza — telling the families: “It is not possible to advance one goal of the war at the expense of harming other goals.”
He also reportedly told the families he would not approve a deal “at any price.”
According to Channel 12, some representatives left the meeting “very concerned” over Netanyahu’s rhetoric and hoped that he would, as he had promised, do all he could to ensure the release of their loved ones.
אנחנו פועלים להשיג מתווה נוסף לשחרור חטופינו, אבל לא בכל מחיר: pic.twitter.com/uGyVga9ND8
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) January 31, 2024
Following the report, Netanyahu released a video statement Wednesday night in which he emphasized that “we are working to attain another framework to release our captives, but I stress — not at any price.”
“We have red lines,” he continued, “including, we will not end the war, we will not pull the IDF out of the Strip, we will not release thousands of terrorists.”
The prime minister said that in addition to working to get the hostages out, Israel is advancing toward its other goals in the war — “the elimination of Hamas and to ensure that Gaza never again represents a threat.”
“We are working on all three of them together and we will not give up on any of them.”
A nine-point outline
Channel 12 elaborated on what it said was a nine-point outline of the deal as presented by Mossad chief Barnea to the war cabinet on Monday.
Phase One would see 35 hostages freed amid a 35-day truce.
The truce would be extended for an additional week to allow for talks on a second stage of releases, including members of civilian defense squads, male hostages, and hostages defined by Hamas as soldiers.
The number of Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails to be released has yet to be decided, with Israel willing to free large numbers of light offenders in order to keep more serious offenders imprisoned, while Hamas is insisting on the release of “quality” prisoners, including murderers and others with blood on their hands, Channel 12 said.
The details of its report were approved by the military censor, Channel 12 noted.
Earlier Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the framework for the deal would see all civilian hostages held by the Palestinian terror group in Gaza freed over a six-week pause in fighting, in exchange for three times as many Palestinian security prisoners released from Israeli jails.
A senior Israeli official told NBC News, meanwhile, that there were “strong indications” a deal would move ahead.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have sharply criticized the reported details of a possible agreement, with the former threatening to bring down the government if a “reckless” deal was reached.
An unnamed source with knowledge of the potential deal’s details told Channel 12 that such a vast number of Palestinian security prisoners was not on the table and that Netanyahu’s continued reference to such a situation was harming efforts to reach an agreement.
“It isn’t clear why Netanyahu is speaking about the release of thousands of terrorists when that number is far from the truth and has not been discussed, and all this just before there is a real chance for the negotiations,” the official said. “It is likely to torpedo the deal.”
According to the Kan public broadcaster, Hamas has demanded that Israel release all operatives of the terror group’s elite Nukhba forces who were captured on October 7 under the deal.
The Nukhba forces were the first to enter Israel on October 7, when thousands of terrorists poured through the Gaza border, slaughtering some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages.
Hamas’s demand is reportedly being discussed by Israeli officials, although no decision has been made on the matter, Kan reported.
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 that saw Israel release 240 security prisoners. 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. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 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.
Additionally, 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.