War cabinet said to expand mandate of negotiating team for potential hostage deal

Netanyahu reportedly opposed the move but was swayed by release of Oct. 7 footage of female soldiers, and consensus among Gallant, Gantz, Eizenkot, Dermer to continue talks

Israelis call for the release of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza since Hamas's October 7 massacre, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on May 22, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Israelis call for the release of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza since Hamas's October 7 massacre, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on May 22, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The war cabinet expanded the mandate of the team negotiating a deal for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7, according to Hebrew media reports on Thursday.

The Ynet news site reported that there was a wide consensus among the security establishment, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, ministers Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot and Ron Dermer, and cabinet observer Aryeh Deri that the negotiation team’s “leash” should be lengthened.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was originally against expanding the negotiation team’s mandate, according to the reports, but was swayed by the broad support for the move and the recent release of footage showing the kidnapping of female IDF soldiers on October 7.

However, the mandate was not broadened as much as the team had requested. One of the negotiators, IDF Maj. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Alon, reportedly suggested that the team should be given a mandate that is more in line with Hamas’s demands.

Alon was also quoted as saying that the team must speak to both mediating parties, Egypt and Qatar, after Israel had stopped communicating with the latter. Ynet reported that this suggestion may have been influenced by the CNN report that said Egypt changed the terms of a previous deal presented to Hamas, causing negotiations to blow up.

Egypt threatened on Wednesday that it may cease acting as a mediator following criticism of its conduct in light of the CNN report.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Alon speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi reportedly said at the war cabinet meeting that pursuing a hostage deal is the best course of action militarily, strategically and morally. In the short term, Halevi argued, a deal, by creating a truce in Gaza, would also allow for negotiations to end hostilities in the north with the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, CIA director William Burns will travel to Europe to meet with Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in an effort to revive the hostage talks, two officials told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

The most recent round of hostage talks broke down earlier this month and negotiations have yet to reconvene, with the sides unable to bridge the gap on the fundamental issue in the talks: Hamas is looking for a hostage deal that permanently ends the war triggered by its October 7 onslaught, while Israel is only willing to agree to a temporary ceasefire, as it aims to finish dismantling the terror group.

The hostages were seized on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality.

It is believed that 121 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 19 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 37 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Israelis protest in Jerusalem, calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza on May 22, 2024. (Tanya Zion-Waldoks)

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

Hamas has also been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Pressure has intensified on the government to reach a deal to free the remaining hostages, with regular protests drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets demanding their rescue.

Last week, Channel 12 quoted a senior member of Israel’s hostage negotiating team as saying that a decision by Netanyahu’s government to further expand the IDF’s operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah would put hostages’ lives at risk.

Such warnings have been made by foreign officials, but this is the first time that they have been echoed — albeit anonymously — by a senior member of Israel’s own negotiating team.

Netanyahu and other members of his government have insisted that military pressure, such as the operation in Rafah, is what will coax Hamas into agreeing to an acceptable hostage deal.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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