Top Hamas official says hostage negotiations are off until war ends

Saleh al-Arouri claims all women and children in group’s hands have been released, and says the hostages it still holds are all soldiers or former soldiers

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri, after signing a reconciliation deal with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)
Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri, after signing a reconciliation deal with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’s politburo, said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday that negotiations with Israel for further release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners have halted, and that there will be no further exchanges until Israel ends its war in Gaza.

Al-Arouri claimed that Hamas has released all the women and children it was holding as well as all the foreigners, and that the remaining hostages in its hands are all combatants and former combatants.

Israel says Gaza terrorists still hold 15 civilian women and two children taken hostage during the October 7 onslaught on southern Israel.

“From the beginning, the Hamas movement announced that the foreign prisoners were to be released without compensation, and that the children and women hostages were not a target and would be released,” al-Arouri said.

“The remaining prisoners in our hands are soldiers and former soldiers, and there will be no negotiations regarding them until the end of hostilities,” he added.

This category includes older men, some of whom still serve in the IDF reserves, he asserted. He said the terror group set terms for the release of the hostages it still holds that were different from those it had already freed, and claimed that Israel rejected those terms.

Still held hostage by Gaza terror groups when the truce collapsed are 136 people — 114 men, 20 women and two children. Ten are 75 and older. The vast majority, 125, are Israeli. Eleven are foreign nationals, including eight from Thailand.

Ofri Bibas Levy, sister of Yarden Bibas, held hostage in Gaza with his wife, Shiri and two kids, Kfir and Ariel, speaks at a press conference calling for the release of the family, at ‘Hostages Square’ in Tel Aviv, Nov. 28, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel says its truce with Hamas stipulated that the terror group would release all civilian women and children before freeing other categories of hostages.

Earlier on Saturday, the Mossad spy agency announced that a negotiating team that had been in Qatar to discuss a possible new truce had been recalled to Israel since talks had reached a “dead end.”

“Due to the dead end in negotiations, and following instructions from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mossad head David Barnea ordered the negotiating team in Doha to return home,” said a rare statement from Netanyahu’s office issued on behalf of the agency.

“The Hamas terror group did not fulfill its obligations under the agreement that included releasing all the women and children that were on the list provided to Hamas that had authorized it,” the statement said.

The Israeli claim was backed by White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on Saturday. “We think it’s more than plausible that they have more women and children that do and should qualify for an exchange,” Kirby said during a briefing. “It’s because of Hamas that this pause ended… The onus is on Hamas to be able to produce a list of hostages.”

In Saturday’s interview with Al Jazeera, al-Arouri reiterated that the only way for Israel to free its hostages was to first cease hostilities and then to release “all our prisoners,” a demand the terror group has been making since the start of the war.

More than 200 Palestinians were freed from Israeli prisons over the seven days of the truce that began on November 24 and ended on Friday.

Palestinian security prisoner Omar Atshan hugs his mother after being released from an Israeli prison, in Ramallah on November 26, 2023. (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

As of November 1, Israeli authorities held nearly 7,000 Palestinians from the West Bank in detention for security offenses, according to the Israeli human rights organization HaMoked.

Commenting on the resumption of Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip following the end of the truce, al-Arouri said: “[Israel] breaking the resistance in Gaza and controlling the Gaza Strip are just illusions.”

The official noted that the scenes of Hamas handing over some of the hostages to the Red Cross inside Gaza City proved that Israel had not managed to gain control over the city and the north of the coastal enclave. Israel acknowledges it has not yet taken control of all areas in the north.

He further announced that Hamas was ready to exchange bodies of Israeli hostages for bodies of Hamas terrorists held by Israel, but that it needs time to exhume the dead Israelis — whom it claims were all killed in IDF bombardments.

Following Thursday’s shooting attack by two Hamas members at a bus stop at the entrance to Jerusalem, in which four Israelis were killed – including one civilian who fired at the terrorists and was mistaken by other responders for one of the assailants – al-Arouri said in his interview to Al Jazeera that Hamas was confident that after Jerusalem, the West Bank will soon join the battle.

The war began on October 7, when Hamas carried out a devastating attack on Israel that killed over 1,200 people, most of them civilians massacred in their homes and at a music festival. The terrorists also abducted at least 240 people who were taken hostage in Gaza. Israel responded with a military campaign to crush Hamas and remove it from power in the Strip.

According to figures released by the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, over 15,000 Palestinians have died in the ongoing war, of whom 200 were allegedly killed since fighting resumed on Friday morning. The figures cannot be independently verified and Hamas does not differentiate between civilians and terrorists killed.

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