Report claims only 50 hostages in Gaza still thought alive

Netanyahu tells families of slain hostages he will not halt fight even as pressure for deal continues to mount; IDF says terror commander who took part in October 7 massacre killed

Posters of Israelis held hostage by Hamas are seen on the wall of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Posters of Israelis held hostage by Hamas are seen on the wall of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

United States officials estimate that as few as 50 hostages in Gaza are still alive, according to a report Thursday, confirming the worst fears of family members who say time is running out for their loved ones after nearly nine months in captivity.

The assessment, based on a combination of Israeli and American intelligence, put the number of deceased hostages at 66, a far higher number than Israel has publicly confirmed, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The Israel Defense Forces have confirmed the deaths of 41 hostages still in captivity, based on intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Talks for a deal to free the hostages, including the remains of those killed in captivity or during the October 7 Hamas onslaught on southern Israel, have failed to notch progress in recent weeks, with the terror group insisting on a permanent halt to fighting in Gaza, a condition rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We won’t leave the Gaza Strip until all the hostages return, and we won’t leave until we destroy Hamas’s military and administrative capabilities,” Netanyahu told family members of hostages confirmed killed during a meeting Thursday, according to his office. “We don’t have an option of putting our hands up. We don’t have an option to forego victory.”

There are thought to be 120 hostages still held in Gaza, 116 of whom were kidnapped on October 7, as well as the bodies of two soldiers and two civilians held there for nearly a decade. A total of 251 people were kidnapped from southern Israel during the October 7 attack, which saw terrorists also kill some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

This handout photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embracing rescued hostage Shlomi Ziv on June 20, 2024. (Maayan Taof/GPO)

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, the head of the medical team for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum Hagai Levine said there is cause to be “extremely worried” for the fates of those still held hostage.

“It seems like every week more hostages are dying or getting in danger or very sick,” he said.

Both the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF declined to comment to the US paper on the estimation, as did the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Hamas did not respond to its requests for comment, but the terror organization has said recently that it does not know how many hostages are still alive.

Illustrative: Protesters at a rally calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

According to the report, the estimation was produced by a small committee of medical experts tasked with reviewing classified information to determine whether a hostage is alive or not.

“We were able to determine the death of people that we know were alive and we know how their life ended over there,” Ofer Merin, a member of the committee and the director general of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, told The Wall Street Journal. “We sit very quietly. We look at each frame. We listen to what happened. And we gather all this information.”

Of those kidnapped on October 7, 105 hostages were released from Hamas captivity as part of a November truce deal, and four hostages were released prior to that on “humanitarian” grounds. Another seven hostages have been rescued by Israeli troops, including four hostages freed by IDF special forces during a rescue mission on June 8.

The bodies of 19 dead hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Gershon Baskin, a hostage negotiator who facilitated the 2011 deal that released IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, told The Wall Street Journal that the rescue mission this month may have negatively affected the remaining hostages.

“They probably tightened up security. They’re looking for collaborators and any leakage of information. They may have moved hostages from above ground to underground,” he said. “I would think that the lives of the hostages were not better off after last Saturday.”

Rescued hostage Almog Meir Jan raises his hands in celebration as he is escorted from an IDF helicopter on arrival at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, June 8, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Public pressure on the government to seal a deal to free the remaining hostages has been building since US President Joe Biden publicly presented an Israel-backed proposal last month.

On Thursday, family members of hostages held in Gaza blocked the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, part of an organized “Week of Destruction” aimed at pressuring the government to call early elections and agree to a hostage deal with Hamas.

According to the Walla news site, among those blocking traffic on the key artery were Yifat Calderon, whose cousin Ofer Calderon is held hostage, and Shay Moses, nephew of hostage Gadi Moses.

At the same time, the international community has sought to ramp up pressure on Hamas to agree to a deal freeing the hostages.

Despite the pressure, neither Netanyahu nor Hamas appear willing to budge, with negotiations remaining stalled. Hamas is reportedly seeking to change the terms of the deal currently on the table by pushing forward a full Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza into the very initial stages of a phased implementation, as well as insisting that it be a clear end to the war.

Israel refuses to commit to a permanent ceasefire as part of a hostage exchange deal, saying it cannot allow Hamas to continue ruling Gaza and developing its military capabilities in light of October 7.

Netanyahu said Thursday during a meeting with the families of dead hostages that his government is “committed to bring them all home, all 120 hostages, both the alive and the dead. We won’t give up on any of them.”

“When we’re in Gaza the pressure changes, our activities create opportunities for returning the hostages,” said the premier, who has long maintained that easing up military pressure will make an agreement more difficult to reach.

Government spokesman David Mencer said during a press briefing on Thursday that Hamas’s “final stronghold” in southern Gaza’s Rafah is systematically being taken apart “and we will win.”

Meanwhile, in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun, the IDF said that a squad commander from Hamas’s elite Nukhba force, which spearheaded the October 7 terror onslaught, was killed in a recent airstrike.

According to the IDF, Ahmed Hassan Salameh a-Swarkeh invaded Israeli towns on October 7 and was later behind sniper attacks against Israeli forces in Beit Hanoun.

The IDF said it was tracking a-Swarkeh for a lengthy period, and he was eventually spotted by troops of the 414th Combat Intelligence Collection Unit, whereupon an Israeli Air Force drone struck and killed him.

“Before the strike, steps were taken to prevent harm to civilians. No civilians were harmed,” the military said in a statement.

The IDF released footage of the strike it said shows a-Swarkeh being targeted.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. The toll, which cannot be verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, is thought to include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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