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Netanyahu's rejection shakes up Gaza crisis

Snubs ceasefire offer to free hostages in Gaza clash

Source: The Guardian

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 early in the war, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

The sources said the Israeli prime minister rejected the deal outright in negotiations soon after Hamas militants 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 had 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.

According to three sources familiar with the talks, the original deal on the table involved freeing children, women and elderly and sick people 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, according to the 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.

On Thursday the US national security council spokesperson John Kirby said Israel had agreed to daily four-hour “humanitarian pauses”, with the aim that the small breaks in bombardments could aid the passage of hostages out of Gaza. Kirby said Israel had also agreed to open a second corridor for civilians to flee Gaza City.

Lt Col Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesperson, said: “There’s no ceasefire, I repeat there’s no ceasefire. What we are doing, that four-hour window, these are tactical, local pauses for humanitarian aid.”

Palestinian Islamic Jihad released a video it said showed two hostages, a woman in her 70s and a 13-year-old boy, held in Gaza. A spokesperson for the group’s military wing said it was “ready to release them on humanitarian grounds when the security conditions on the ground are met”. Hecht said the footage amounted to “psychological terrorism of the worst kind I’ve seen in my life”.

Indirect negotiations between Israeli officials and Hamas, mediated by Qatar as the two groups do not officially have contact, have recently 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 a small number of hostages was a litmus test and a gateway to further hostage talks.

Officials from Egypt and the United Nations and a western diplomat told Associated Press that the deal 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.”

Yehuda 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.”

One source with knowledge of the talks, which slowed after the Israeli ground invasion, 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.

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.

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.

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 window of opportunity for this is very narrow. We have to finish this … within a week.”

Talks 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.

“The war is moving forward with force that Hamas has never seen,” Netanyahu declared in a forceful speech marking a month since the incursion. “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. Burns met the Mossad chief Barnea and the Qatari prime minister in Doha on Thursday.

Sources briefed on the talks told Reuters that the group discussed allowing small amounts of fuel into Gaza for humanitarian purposes, which Israel has so far refused, as well as the deal to free a small number of hostages in exchange for a ceasefire of one or two days. The outcome of the talks, however, remained unclear.

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