Inside story

Qatar pressing Hamas to release women, children and elderly hostages — official

Israel rejects Hamas proposal to free 36 Palestinian female, teen prisoners but talks ongoing, as some in terror group recognize taking civilians has helped legitimize IDF response

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, attend a meeting, in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, attend a meeting, in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Qatar is working to coax Hamas to release the women, children and elderly hostages currently being held in Gaza who were taken captive during October 7’s Hamas terror onslaught in southern Israel, a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel Sunday.

Roughly 150-200 Israelis and foreign nationals — some mere infants, some children with special needs and others in their mid-80s with chronic health issues — are believed to have been dragged by terrorists into Gaza last Saturday, with their whereabouts largely unknown since. While the majority are being held by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad claims to be holding 30 hostages of its own, further complicating efforts to bring about their release.

It is unknown how many of those taken are alive.

While Israel has largely refrained from commenting on the hostages and efforts to bring about their release, indicating that its primary and immediate focus is eradicating Hamas, the issue has been at the top of the agenda for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he engages in shuttle diplomacy across the region.

Among the six countries he has visited over the past several days has been Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political bureau, and which has been holding talks with the terror group regarding the hostages.

Hamas — being represented in the talks by its leader abroad Ismail Haniyeh — initially told Qatar that it was prepared to return some of the women, children and elderly hostages in exchange for Israel releasing 36 female and teenage Palestinian security prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, the diplomatic official told The Times of Israel.

However, the offer was not entertained by Israel, the diplomatic official said, adding that the Qatar-brokered talks are ongoing.

In this picture released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Aabdollahian, left, meets with Ismail Haniyeh, one of the Palestinian militant group Hamas leaders in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

A second source familiar with the negotiations told The Times of Israel that some in Hamas recognize that taking women, children and elderly people hostage has provided Israel more international legitimacy to massively expand its military campaign against the terror group.

National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi said on Saturday that there are no active negotiation efforts underway by Israel to repatriate the hostages, saying “there is no way right now to have a negotiation” with the organization.

“Israel will not hold negotiations with an enemy that we have vowed to wipe from the face of the earth,” he said, briefing reporters at the Israel Defense Force’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

His comments prompted fury from the families of the missing, with their spokesman accusing the government of abandoning the hostages.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday met with representatives of the families of the captives and vowed to work for the hostages’ return as soon as possible.

“Netanyahu told the families that one of the goals of the war is the return of the captive and missing,” a statement from the families read, after the meeting at an IDF Home Front Command base in Ramle.

Netanyahu had come under particular criticism for failing to meet earlier with the families after US President Joe Biden held a 90-minute call with families of missing Americans on Friday. Fifteen Americans remain unaccounted for since last Saturday’s Hamas assault and some of those individuals are among the hostages.

“We are trying to get everyone home. We’ve been to dozens of homes… I want to hug people personally,” said the government’s newly appointed liaison for hostages Gal Hirsch on Saturday.

IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Saturday night that the military has so far notified the families of 126 hostages that their loved ones are being held in the Gaza Strip.

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw at least 1,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing over 1,300 people and seizing 150-200 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 seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what US President Joe Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

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