PM meets hostages’ families, hints at progress in talks ‘to bring everyone home’

Hamas says no deals unless fighting ends, but reports swirl of bid to free 40 female, elderly, sick hostages for 2-week truce, release of Palestinian prisoners, including murderers

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara at his side, meets with representatives of families whose loved ones are being held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, October 28, 2023. (GPO)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara at his side, meets with representatives of families whose loved ones are being held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, October 28, 2023. (GPO)

Talks between Israel and Hamas to negotiate the release of hostages, mediated by Qatar, appeared to be ongoing Thursday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinting at progress during a meeting with families of those held by the terror group in the Gaza Strip.

According to a Channel 12 report, the current offer on the table is similar to the agreement in a previous week-long temporary truce, mediated by Qatar and Egypt, which saw Hamas free 105 civilians of the roughly 240 hostages taken from Israel on October 7, in return for a pause in fighting, an increase in humanitarian aid to the Strip, and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Mossad chief David Barnea and IDF hostage envoy Nitzan Alon were set to update the war cabinet late Thursday about developments in the negotiations, according to the report, which added that despite similarities with the previous agreement, there were a number of new aspects that the cabinet needed to discuss.

The new reported deal would bring about the release of about 40 remaining female, elderly and sick hostages in exchange for a roughly two-week truce and the release of a large group of Palestinian prisoners — more than in the previous deal — including those convicted of murder. The previous deal did not see the release of Palestinian prisoners with such convictions.

Hamas has insisted that it is not interested in such offers and will only release hostages if Israel agrees to a permanent ceasefire and withdraws its troops from Gaza — a nonstarter for Jerusalem.

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu met with family members representing 28 of the hostages in Gaza at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Teenagers from Kibbutz Kfar Azza and their supporters arrive in Jerusalem after a five day march from Tel Aviv as part of a protest calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, December 28, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

During the two-hour meeting he hinted progress in the hostage deal talks but reportedly declined to elaborate further so as not to scuttle the negotiations.

The premier told the families: “Negotiations are ongoing as we speak. I can’t go into details on the status – we’re working to bring everyone home. That’s our goal.”

“We’re not giving up on anyone,” the prime minister said.

While the meeting was ongoing, however, a spokesman for Hamas issued another statement insisting that the terror group will not hold talks while fighting is ongoing, demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza as a pre-condition for future hostage releases.

According to the PMO statement, the representatives told Netanyahu, who was accompanied by his wife Sara, National Security Adviser Tzahi Hanegbi, hostage envoy Gal Hirsch, and military secretary Maj. Gen. Avi Gil, about their fears for the wellbeing of their loved ones held in Gaza. They also asked questions about efforts to  secure the release of all of the remaining hostages.

Channel 12 reported that during the meeting Netanyahu learned that one of the hostages holds Hungarian citizenship. According to the report the prime minister has not discussed the matter with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban, despite close relations between the two leaders.

Sara Netanyahu told the representatives, “As a mother and as an educational psychologist I understand the impossible situation you’re in, and the huge amount of support you need, including emotional support. We’re all with you in order to assist with whatever’s needed.”

She also told them that she had sent “letters to 33 female leaders all over the world and asked them to put pressure on the Red Cross,” adding “Hamas is perpetrating crimes against humanity. We’re praying for all of our hostages and for their safe and swift return home.”

File – Palestinians take a kidnapped Israeli civilian, center, from the Nir Oz kibbutz into the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after the weeklong truce in late November.

The hostages were abducted during Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as gunmen attacked border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 360 people were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

In response, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and launched a wide-scale military campaign which Gazan authorities say has killed over 21,000 people. The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

File – Members of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror groups release Israeli hostages to the Red Cross, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

In recent weeks, reports have swirled in Hebrew and international media about renewed talks with the Iran-backed terror group, mediated by Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political bureau and doubles as the main residence of its self-exiled leader Ismail Haniyeh, as well as its former leader Khaled Mashaal. The country is one of Hamas’s main backers, transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to the terror group annually.

Due to their close ties, the wealthy Gulf monarchy, a US ally that also hosts a large American military base, has acted as a communications channel with Hamas.

One report in mid-December speculated that Israel may let Hamas choose the next hostages to be freed, though it noted that negotiations were expected to be complex. A separate report the following week said that Jerusalem was weighing the option of not killing Hamas leaders in Gaza Yahya Sinwar and Muhammad Deif, if and when the opportunity arises, and instead handing them immunity of sorts and deporting them to Qatar or another country.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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