Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a deal for a five-day ceasefire with Palestinian militant groups in Gaza in return for the release of some of the hostages held in the territory, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
The sources said the Israeli prime minister rejected the deal outright in early negotiations after militants from Hamas staged an unprecedented incursion into Israeli territory on 7 October, killing an estimated 1,400 people.
Negotiations resumed after the launch of the Israeli ground offensive on 27 October, but the same sources said Netanyahu has continued to take a tough line on proposals involving ceasefires of different durations in exchange for a varying number of hostages.
Others indicated that negotiations which took place prior to the ground invasion involved a far larger number of hostages, with Hamas proposing the release of dozens of foreign nationals captive in Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister’s office was asked to comment on the hostage negotiations but had not given a response by Thursday evening.
An estimated 240 people were taken hostage after fighters from Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups based in Gaza, as well as civilians, crossed the reinforced border fence separating the territory from Israeli towns and kibbutzim.
Public anger and demands that Israel prioritise hostage negotiations have increased, with families of those held in Gaza rallying outside Netanyahu’s residence earlier this week.
A man holds a placard as relatives of hostages held by Hamas and those who lost their lives on 7 October set up tents in front of Knesset on 8 November. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu/Getty ImagesAccording to three sources familiar with the talks, the original deal on the table involved freeing children, women, elderly and sick people among the hostages in exchange for a five-day ceasefire, but the Israeli government turned this down and demonstrated its rejection with the launch of the ground offensive.
Israeli bombardments as well as a continuing ground invasion of the northern end of the Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million people, have killed more than 10,300 people in the past month and injured in excess of 25,000 more, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. Abu Obeida, the spokesperson for Hamas’s militant wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, has said that the group is unable to release more hostages amid the mounting attacks.
Indirect negotiations between Israeli officials and Hamas, mediated by Qatar as the two groups do not officially have contact, are now focused on the possibility of a ceasefire lasting between one and three days, tied to the release of between 10 and 15 hostages.
A source with knowledge of the negotiations said the push to cease hostilities for a short time and exchange the small number of hostages was a litmus test and a gateway to further hostage talks.
Officials from Egypt, the United Nations and a western diplomat told Associated Press that the deal currently on the table would also allow more aid, including small amounts of fuel, to enter Gaza after Israel largely cut supplies of food, water, aid and fuel days after Hamas’s incursion. US officials told AP that the Biden administration suggested linking the length of the ceasefire to the number of hostages for release.
Negotiations to free the hostages resulted in the release of four women, including two American citizens and two Israelis, on 20 and 24 October. The Egyptian cable news channel Al Qahera said Egyptian mediators were close to reaching a deal that would bring a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza and a hostage exchange.
Noam Sagi, whose 75-year-old mother, Ada Sagi, is being held hostage, said: “We have heard plenty of rumours in the past 30 days. We are in the midst of psychological torture for the last 34 days. Rumours come and go.
“We expect from everyone involved to bring all of the hostages back home now. It is the number one priority.”
Noam Sagi. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty ImagesYehuda Beinin, whose daughter, Liat, 49, and son-in-law, Aviv, 49, were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz, said the reports emerging about a ceasefire were “very unclear”.
“What we have to say to the government of Israel is: it is your job to secure the release of the hostages. How you go about doing that, that’s your problem,” the 70-year-old said. “I do not feel that a month has passed by, I have no concept of time. It’s one big total blur and it’s very unreal, very unnerving … Psychologically or emotionally I’m focused on doing whatever I can to secure the release of my daughter and her husband so all of my energy goes to that.”
One source with knowledge of the talks to free the hostages, which slowed after the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, said a central point of discussion was a demand by the Israeli side for Hamas to provide a full list specifying the name and details of each person held in Gaza. The Israeli side was unwilling to cease bombardments without receiving this list, which became a focal point of negotiations.
Hamas responded that it was unable to provide the list without a pause in the fighting, as the estimated 240 hostages were held by a number of different groups in places across Gaza. That suggested even Hamas leaders do not know for sure how many people are held captive, their locations or the number who have survived the bombardments that have now devastated Gaza for over a month.
Another source said Hamas originally demanded prisoner exchanges, fuel and other supplies in return for the hostages, but these demands were dropped in favour of a halt to the airstrikes alone.
“Each time the Israeli counter-demand got harder,” the source said. Members of Hamas have previously said they took hostages in order to exchange them for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
The negotiations have also brought splits inside the Israeli establishment to the fore, pitting hawks in the military, government rightwingers, and particularly Netanyahu, against the Mossad intelligence agency, which is the lead agency in hostage negotiations, and some of the generals.
“Each time a deal would go back to Bibi [Netanyahu] it would come back with tougher demands,” one source said. Netanyahu has repeatedly publicly rejected any idea of a ceasefire, and has instead opted to intensify attacks on Gaza, telling the Israeli public that targeting Hamas is key to long-term solutions to the security failures that led to the 7 October attack.
In mid-October, the former Mossad operative David Meidan, who negotiated the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza over a decade ago, told Haaretz: “There’s no doubt that the first issue the state has to deal with is the matter of the captives. The most vulnerable among them. Children, the elderly, mothers and the wounded. The window of opportunity for this is very narrow. We have to finish this within a short time, within a week.”
Israeli army troops next to a destroyed building during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday 8 November. Photograph: Ohad Zwigenberg/APTalks have focused on attempts to find figures within the Israeli camp who are receptive to the argument that further hostage releases would be impossible amid an escalation in the fighting, especially as this presents additional risk to the hostages, who are spread throughout Gaza.
“The war is moving forward with force that Hamas has never seen,” Netanyahu declared in a forceful speech marking a month since the incursion. “Gaza City is surrounded. We are operating within it, we are deepening the pressure on Hamas every hour, every day.” He added: “There will not be a ceasefire without the return of our kidnapped.”
Israeli media reported that the current Mossad director, David Barnea, and the former director Yossi Cohen recently visited Doha to discuss hostage negotiations. Their visit, as well as an increased role of the Mossad in negotiations, appeared to shift discussions towards the possibility of a limited hostage release tied to a temporary ceasefire.
The CIA chief, William Burns, visited Cairo and Israel earlier this week, meeting the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who “underlined the necessity of an immediate ceasefire [in Gaza] to protect civilians and facilitate access to humanitarian aid”, according to a statement.
Burns met with Mossad chief Barnea and the Qatari prime minister in Doha on Thursday to discuss a potential deal to free hostages in exchange for a pause in fighting.
The US president, Joe Biden, told reporters at the beginning of this week that he asked Netanyahu to “pause” attacks on Gaza. Axios reported that the “three-day pause”, backed by Biden when he spoke with Netanyahu by phone on Monday, was linked to the release of a small number of hostages.