Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no deal yet to secure the release of some 240 hostages held by Hamas “as of now,” and dismissed “a lot of incorrect reports” in recent days about imminent agreements to free at least some of the hostages.
In a lengthy Saturday evening press conference, Netanyahu said that if a deal emerges, the Israeli public will be updated.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that Israel, the United States and Hamas were “close” to an agreement that would free dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day pause in hostilities.
Hamas terrorists seized about 240 hostages on October 7 when they surged across Gaza’s militarized border into southern Israel to kill around 1,200 people, mostly civilians who were massacred at their homes and fleeing a music festival amid brutal atrocities.
The hostages are of all ages, and include young children and elderly people as well as Thai and Nepali nationals.
The Washington Post cited Arab and other diplomats who said the deal has been in the works during weeks of talks in Doha, Qatar, which is leading mediation efforts toward a ceasefire and release of the hostages. Under the terms of the deal, which the report described as a “detailed, six-page agreement,” Israel and Hamas would “freeze combat operations for at least five days while an initial 50 or more” of the 240 people held hostage “are released in batches every 24 hours.”
In his briefing Saturday, Netanyahu was asked if Israel had passed up a serious deal first reported on Wednesday for the release of some 50 hostages, and if he was insisting that all the hostages be released. He responded that “there was no deal on the table” and he could not elaborate further.
“We want to get back all the hostages,” he said. “We’re doing the utmost to bring back the most possible, including in stages, and we are united on this.”
“We obviously want to bring [home] whole families together,” he added.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Hamas agreed to a deal that would see the release 50 hostages being held in Gaza in exchange for a three-day pause in fighting.
Channel 12 reported Saturday, citing an Arab source close to Hamas, that the latest Israeli demand was actually for approximately 87 people, including 13 mothers, 40 children, and 34 foreign nationals.
Israel has been insisting on keeping families together — parents and children — for any hostage deals, according to the report.
In exchange, Hamas would get a five-day pause, the release of some Palestinian prisoners, including women, minors, and security detainees, and the entry of higher amounts of fuel into the Gaza Strip.
Channel 12 reported that Hamas has yet to respond.
Minister Benny Gantz, head of National Unity and a member of the emergency war cabinet, said Saturday during the press conference that securing a deal for the hostages was a top priority even as the military acts to dismantle Hamas, which Israel vowed to do following the October 7 atrocities.
Israel has “decades if needed to destroy this thing” — an apparent reference to Hamas. “We don’t have decades to bring the people home… So, yes, from my point of view, it is a priority to get the hostages back. But that priority doesn’t override our obligation” to destroy Hamas, “however long it takes,” said Gantz.
“I want to bring back the elderly, and the children. Nobody here wants anything else. Nobody in Israel wants anything else,” said Gantz.
On Saturday, US President Joe Biden’s main adviser on the Middle East said there would be not be a “significant pause” in the Israel-Hamas war until all women and children held by terrorists in Gaza are freed, aligning the administration with Israel’s position.
“The surge in humanitarian relief, the surge in fuel, the pause… will come when hostages are released,” Brett McGurk told a security conference in Bahrain.
The release of “all women, children, toddlers and babies” would result in “a significant pause… and a massive surge of humanitarian relief,” he elaborated. The “onus is on Hamas,” McGurk said, to take steps that would lead to a pause in the fighting.
The annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain typically focuses on Gulf Arab nations’ fears about Iran in the region. This year, however, the Israel-Hamas war has taken center stage, in part as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates reached diplomatic recognition deals with Israel in 2020.
Friday night, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa opened the summit with a call for a swap between Hamas and Israel for the hostages and a halt in the bloodshed.
“You want to call it a ceasefire. You want to call it a pause. You can call it whatever you want,” the prince said. “The intention is a break so people can take stock. People can bury their dead. People can finally start to grieve. And maybe people can start to ask themselves about the intelligence failure that led to this crisis in the first place.”
McGurk said Biden had discussed the hostage issue on Friday evening with the ruler of the Gulf nation of Qatar. The White House said Biden and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani discussed “the urgent need for all hostages held by Hamas to be released without further delay.”
So far efforts by Qatar have led to the release of four of the hostages. A fifth hostage, a soldier, was rescued in an Israeli operation.
The Israel Defense Forces said this week it had recovered the bodies of two women hostages in Gaza.
On Saturday, families of hostages and thousands of their supporters demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square in a rally focused in particular on the some 40 children believed held in Gaza.
To coincide with Monday’s World Children’s Day, most of the speakers were relatives of the children being held by Hamas and other terrorist groups since the October 7 massacres.
Many of the families of the hostages headed straight to Tel Aviv after completing a five-day march to Jerusalem earlier in the day, which culminated in a protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Late Saturday, several hundred people gathered on Jerusalem’s Kaplan Street, near the Knesset, for a silent rally paying homage to the some 1,200 people killed by terrorists last month and praying for the hostages.