PM says he okayed plans for Rafah op, Hamas demands still ‘absurd’ but talks to go on

Netanyahu says delegation will travel to Qatar for ongoing negotiations after cabinet discusses latest proposals by terror group for hostage release

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the security cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the security cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

While calling Hamas’s latest demands for a hostage release deal “absurd,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that Israel would send a delegation to Qatar to continue talks on a potential truce “once the security cabinet discusses the Israeli position.”

At the same time, Netanyahu’s office said he had approved military operational plans for an offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah — a stick Jerusalem continues to hold over the terror group in efforts to reach a hostage release.

Israel has said Rafah, where four Hamas battalions are deployed, remains Hamas’s last major stronghold in the Strip after the IDF operated in the north and center of the Palestinian enclave. It has said an offensive there is necessary to achieve the war’s goals and is not a question of “if” but “when.”

The plan has caused intense consternation in the international community, including from the US and Egypt, due to Rafah now hosting over a million displaced Palestinians from elsewhere in Gaza. Israel has said it is making plans to evacuate and protect civilians as part of its offensive plans.

After a war cabinet meeting on Friday, the prime minister rejected the latest proposal put forward by Hamas, saying its demands “are still absurd.” Israel and Hamas have struggled to agree on a deal for weeks as both sides accuse each other of sabotaging talks and making unreasonable demands. Israel has continued to maintain that it will not agree to any deal that includes a permanent end to the war, with Hamas still in power.

According to a proposal seen by Reuters, Hamas suggested in its latest proposal that an initial release of Israelis include women, children, the elderly and ill hostages, in exchange for the release of 700-1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The release of Israeli “female recruits” is included.

Hamas proposed a permanent ceasefire and a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would be agreed upon after the first stage.

The group said all detainees from both sides would be released in the second stage of the plan.

In February, Hamas received a draft proposal from Gaza truce talks in Paris that included a 40-day pause in all military operations and the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages at a ratio of 10 to one — a similar ratio to the new ceasefire proposal.

Talks appeared to break down late last week as Hamas continued to demand that Israel end the war and withdraw all troops in Gaza, rather than the six-week pause and partial withdrawal Jerusalem had already agreed to. Israel agreed to hold talks based on the Paris proposal but has stressed that any break in the fighting would be temporary, committing to its long-held goal of not ending the war until it destroys Hamas.

Hopes had risen in recent days, though, with a senior Arab diplomat telling The Times of Israel earlier this week that talks were advancing after Qatar put heavy pressure on Hamas to soften its demands, warning that its leaders residing in Doha could be deported if they didn’t adapt their approach in the negotiations.

Palestinians shop at a local market next to a destroyed residential building by the Israeli airstrikes, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, March 14, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

Late on Thursday, Hamas said it presented to mediators a comprehensive vision of a truce based on stopping what it called Israeli aggression against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, providing relief and aid, the return of displaced Gazans to their homes and withdrawing Israeli forces.

A senior Israeli official told the Walla news site that Hamas’s demands were still too high, but “there is something to work with.”

On Friday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Hamas response was “within the bounds of the deal that we’ve been working on for several months.”

“The fact that there’s another delegation heading to Doha… the fact that this proposal is out there, that there are conversations about it, that’s all good,” Kirby said during a press briefing.

“It’s within the broad brushstrokes of the deal that we’ve been talking about,” Kirby reiterated.

Kirby said the US will not be sending a delegation to the next meeting between negotiators in Doha but that the administration remains engaged on the matter.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that things are moving in a good direction, but that doesn’t mean that it’s done, and we’re going to have to stay at this to the very, very end,” he added.

The war began on October 7 with Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel in which terrorists rampaged through the south, murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

Activists protest calling for the government to find a solution to have the hostages released, outside IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 7, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It is believed that 130 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Two other civilians and two bodies of Israeli soldiers have been held by Hamas from before the war.

Meanwhile, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims that over 31,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the war. The number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both Hamas gunmen and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terror operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7.

Lazar Berman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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