Netanyahu: 'No ceasefire without the release of our hostages'

Qatar works for release of 10-15 hostages in exchange for pause in fighting

6 US citizens could be among those freed in potential deal; Hostages and Missing Families Forum reiterates plea for Israel to refuse ceasefire without return of all hostages

A woman writes on a photo of people held hostage in Gaza at an installation in Tel Aviv, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A woman writes on a photo of people held hostage in Gaza at an installation in Tel Aviv, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Qatar is mediating negotiations between Israel and Hamas for the potential release of 10-15 hostages held in Gaza in exchange for a humanitarian pause in fighting, a source briefed on the talks told AFP Wednesday.

“Negotiations mediated by the Qataris in coordination with the US are ongoing to secure the release of 10-15 hostages in exchange for a one- to two-day ceasefire,” the informed source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the talks’ sensitivity.

A source close to Hamas corroborated the report on Wednesday evening, claiming that talks are underway for the release of a dozen hostages it is holding, including six Americans, in return for a three-day ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

“Talks revolve around the release of 12 hostages, half of them Americans, in exchange for a three-day humanitarian pause, to enable Hamas to release the hostages and to enable Egypt an extended [period of time] to deliver humanitarian aid,” the source claimed.

On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that there can be no ceasefire in Gaza without the release of hostages, though he did not say how many hostages would be required and whether his government had any preference regarding their identity.

“I want to put to the side all sorts of idle rumors that we are hearing from all sorts of directions, and repeat one clear thing: There will be no ceasefire without the release of our hostages,” he said.

On Tuesday, a US and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Israel opposes the US push for humanitarian pauses in Gaza that aren’t preceded by Hamas agreeing to release the hostages from the Strip.

While diplomatic efforts to free the hostages are ongoing, the US doesn’t want humanitarian pauses to be conditioned on the captives’ release, the officials said.

The US official clarified that Washington and its allies were also pursuing options that would see hostages released in exchange for humanitarian pauses but said that those “temporary and localized pauses” should be accepted by Israel, even if there was no immediate progress in the hostage talks.

Workers from the Palestinian Red Crescent unload trucks carrying humanitarian aid after they entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on October 21, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel appeared to confirm this sequential approach, saying during a briefing that “conditions can be created [as a result of the humanitarian pauses] that could potentially lead to additional hostage releases [and] that could potentially lead to an influx in humanitarian aid as well.”

The US official speaking to The Times of Israel recognized that Hamas would try and use such pauses to regroup but argued that Israel will still be able to take steps to limit this.

Pauses are needed to allow for Gaza terror groups to get a full accounting of the roughly 240 hostages, which is necessary to advance negotiations for a more widescale release, the US official added.

According to Israeli estimates, Hamas currently holds around 180 hostages, Palestinian Islamic Jihad holds roughly 40 hostages and unaffiliated mob families are believed to hold an additional 20, complicating negotiations significantly, as the Qatari mediators’ contacts are largely with Hamas’s political leaders abroad, who have largely been sidelined by the terror group’s military leaders still in Gaza, the Israeli official said.

The Walla news site reported that in their call Monday, US President Joe Biden tried to convince Netanyahu to agree to a three-day humanitarian pause, which would begin with the release of 10 to 15 hostages. The three days would then be used by Hamas to compile a full list of all the hostages, which would be passed along to Qatari mediators.

Relatives and acquaintances hold pictures of hostages and missing persons during a meeting on behalf of hostages abducted from Israel by terrorists on October 7, 2023, at the French National Assembly, in Paris, on October 31, 2023. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

Netanyahu rejected the offer, saying that he didn’t trust that Hamas would be willing to release a large number of hostages and that it would suffice with releasing very small numbers while Israel would have a much harder time relaunching its fighting after three days due to international pressure that would surely mount, Walla reported.

The negotiations come as Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza enters its second month.

The fighting was triggered on October 7 with Hamas’s deadly onslaught inside Israel, in which some 3,000 terrorists killed more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took at least 245 hostages. Of the hostages taken by Hamas, four were released and one was rescued by Israeli forces in an overnight raid.

In response to the massacre, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip and to destroy the group’s infrastructure.

In Gaza, the Hamas-run health ministry stated that 10,569 people, also mostly civilians, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes or during ground combat. However, this number cannot be verified independently and is believed to include members of the terror group as well as civilians killed due to misfired rockets falling inside the Strip.

Qatar has been engaged in intense diplomacy to secure the release of those held by Hamas and successfully negotiated the handover of four hostages — two Israelis and two Americans — in recent weeks.

People hold up posters of the missing as they gather outside the Qatari Embassy in London on October 29, 2023, to demand the release of the estimated 240 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas. (Justin TALLIS / AFP)

The wealthy Gulf emirate has in recent years paid the salaries of civil servants in the Gaza Strip, provided humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and maintained open channels of communication with Hamas, which has ruled the strip since 2007.

Qatar has also hosted Hamas’s political office in its capital of Doha for over a decade. Among officials based there are former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, and Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s current chief.

Alongside being home to senior Hamas officials, Qatar also hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East.

Amid repeated calls for a ceasefire, Qatar has lamented the violence in Gaza and its impact on the enclave’s 2.3 million inhabitants, saying the Israeli campaign undermines mediation efforts and de-escalation.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said the Gulf state was “determined to continue its mediation,” despite the difficulties on the ground “caused by the actions of the Israeli occupation.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani at a hotel during a day of meetings, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

On October 29, a spokesperson for Qatar’s foreign ministry said that Israel’s ground invasion, which it had launched a day prior, had made negotiations “considerably more difficult.”

At the same time as Qatar continues to negotiate for the release of the hostages, a report in the semiofficial Egyptian news outlet Al-Akhbar claimed on Wednesday that Cairo is close to reaching a deal that would see Israel agree to a temporary pause in fighting in Gaza in exchange for a swap of prisoners and hostages being held by Hamas.

As the US has continued to urge Israel to agree to a humanitarian pause in the fighting in Gaza, Israel has remained steadfast in its commitment to refuse any humanitarian pause that doesn’t involve the release of hostages.

In a primetime statement on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu addressed the families of the hostages: “I want you to know that we are working in every manner, on every front, to bring your loved ones, our loved ones, home,” he said, pointing to both military and diplomatic efforts.

Amid the reports of the Qatari and Egyptian negotiations, Hebrew media outlets quoted the Hostages and Missing Families Forum as saying that they “welcome the return of every abductee who is in Gaza. At the same time, the organization sticks to its position that any move for a ceasefire must include the release of all the hostages.”

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen appointed Alon Roth-Snir, Israel’s incoming ambassador to New Zealand, to head the international diplomatic efforts to free the hostages. Cohen himself departed Israel for Brussels on Wednesday along with the families of several hostages, in order to speak in front of the European Parliament.

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