Hamas officials to arrive in Cairo for talks Thursday

PM vetoes further Cairo negotiations on hostages; war cabinet reportedly not consulted

Gantz, Eisenkot said incensed; families outraged by decision they cast as ‘death sentence’ for captives; Netanyahu: No progress possible unless Hamas drops ‘delusional’ demands

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/ Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/ Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out sending an Israeli delegation for further hostage negotiations in Cairo, without consulting the war’s foremost decision-making forum, it was widely reported Wednesday.

The decision prompted outrage among representatives of hostages’ families, and reportedly angered war cabinet members Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot of the National Unity party, who met Wednesday evening to discuss their response after being kept out of several key decisions recently.

Netanyahu said in a video statement that no advancements could be made in hostage negotiations until Hamas withdrew its “delusional” demands.

In a statement, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum — representing family members of most of the remaining hostages in Gaza — said it was “stunned” by the decision to “thwart” the ongoing talks, adding that “it appears that some of the members of the cabinet decided to sacrifice the lives of the hostages without admitting it.”

This decision will mark “a death sentence” for the hostages remaining in captivity, it said.

Egypt and Qatar are looking to build momentum in the talks, and were looking to hold meetings on Thursday that avoided the main sticking point: the number of Palestinian prisoners Israel would need to release in a potential deal. According to the Walla news site, which cited sources with knowledge on the matter, Thursday’s talks would focus on humanitarian aspects of an agreement.

The heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, as well as Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser, were in Cairo Tuesday for the negotiations. A source in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that they were there to listen and nothing more. Those talks ended without a breakthrough.

Kan news also reported Tuesday that Netanyahu had rejected a new framework proposal put together by the Mossad, Shin Bet and Israel Defense Forces for a truce and hostage release agreement.

The Palestinian terror group’s demands include moves toward a permanent ceasefire, a withdrawal of troops from Gaza, reconstruction of the enclave, and the release of some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, among them numerous convicted killers and terror masterminds, in exchange for the remaining hostages taken on October 7.

Israel has said such demands are non-starters.

“This week we freed two of our hostages in a careful military operation,” Netanyahu said in his statement. “So far we have freed 112 of our hostages with a combination of strong military pressure and firm negotiations. This is also the key to freeing more of our captives — strong military pressure and firm negotiations.” Therefore, he added, “I insist that Hamas drop its insane demands, and when they drop these demands we can move forward.”

Earlier a statement from the PMO said: “In Cairo, Israel was not given any new proposal by Hamas for the release of our hostages,” and that Israel would “not submit to the delusional demands of Hamas.”

People walk by photographs of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The statement was released shortly after media outlets reported that Israel would not send a delegation on Thursday.

“A change in Hamas’s positions will allow progress in the negotiations,” the statement added.

According to Channel 12 news Wednesday, Netanyahu rejected a recommendation by those who had attended the talks to “exhaust the process.”

Officials involved in the negotiations told the network they “understand Netanyahu’s political challenge, but this is an opportunity he can’t miss.”

Netanyahu is under pressure from his far-right coalition allies to reject what they view as an irresponsible deal with Hamas to halt the IDF’s ongoing offensive.

The families forum said that “while the negotiating team made a decision to be just passive listeners, female hostages are being actively raped and men are suffering abuse.” The group said that starting Thursday, it will form a “barricade” outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv until the prime minister and the war cabinet agree to meet with the families.

Amid Israel’s planned absence, a delegation from Hamas will head to Cairo to meet with Egyptian and Qatari officials for the talks on Thursday.

Mediators in Egypt are said to be racing to secure a ceasefire before Israel proceeds with a planned wide-scale ground operation in Rafah.

People ride in a cart pulled by a tractor past the rubble of a destroyed building and a mosque minaret in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 14, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Israel has been willing to accept talks based on the original Paris framework from two weeks ago, which reportedly envisions 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, respectively.

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 have not been officially published.

Also Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Hamas’s demand for limitations of Israel’s sovereignty at the Temple Mount in the context of ongoing hostage negotiations was an “obvious non-starter.” US President Joe Biden has called some of Hamas’s demands were “over the top,” but Miller’s comments appeared to be the first time that a US official specified Washington’s issues with Hamas’s response.

“You saw a number of issues that were obvious non-starters, for example, the status of Al-Aqsa is not going to be resolved in negotiation of hostages,” Miller said during a press briefing.

Quoting US and Israeli officials, the Axios news site reported late Tuesday that the key sticking point in the negotiations is the release of Palestinian prisoners, with US President Joe Biden telling Netanyahu on Sunday that while Hamas’s demands went too far, Israel could demonstrate more flexibility, and will likely have to free more Palestinians per hostage than a previous deal in November that saw 105 civilians released by the terror group.

“[The] ratio remains an outstanding issue,” a US official said.

That deal saw three Palestinians freed for every hostage.

The report also said Netanyahu told Biden that he wants a hostage deal but it must be backed by the cabinet, which includes far-right allies who are resistant to a truce.

Tuesday’s talks in Cairo were held as Israel prepared to broaden its offensive to the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere. An Israeli hostage rescue mission on Monday freed two captives held in the town along the Egyptian border, a raid that killed at least 74 Palestinians according to Hamas health officials, whose figures don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel said many of those killed were terror operatives.

Israel has made destroying Hamas’s governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages the main goals of the war, which began when thousands of Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 253 others captive, including women and children. Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from destroyed communities.

The war has wrought massive destruction in the Gaza Strip, with more than 28,000 people killed, according to Gaza-based Hamas health officials. That figure cannot be independently verified and includes some 10,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle and as a consequence of the terror groups’ own rocket misfires. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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