As reports swirl that a deal may be in the offing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow war cabinet ministers met on Monday evening with the families of some 240 hostages being held by Hamas and other terror factions in the Gaza Strip since the October 7 atrocities across southern Israel.
- The three-hour meeting was held at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, but initially devolved into chaotic scenes amid a dust-up with some of the families who were refused initial entry into the meeting.
The families said they provided a list of 107 representatives to the premier’s office ahead of time, but upon their arrival, many were told that there was not enough space in the auditorium that was reserved for the meeting for all of them to attend.
Some of the families waited outside in the cold for more than an hour. All the representatives were eventually allowed to attend.
Several family members left in the middle of the meeting, fuming over what they said were mixed messages the government has given them regarding the goals of the war.
“A few days ago, we met with [war cabinet ministers Benny] Gantz and [Gadi] Eisenkot. We heard from them in an unmistakable way that the overarching goal of the war is the return of the hostages,” Udi Goren, whose cousin is Gaza hostage Tal Haimi, told reporters after coming out of the meeting.
However, he said Netanyahu told the hostages’ families that the goal of destroying Hamas is on equal footing with that of returning the hostages, which infuriated those present, who feel that their loved ones are being allowed to remain in Gaza for more time, as a result.
- “What we’ve heard is that taking down Hamas and bringing the hostages [home] are … equally important,” Goren said.
- “This is incredibly disappointing because … we know that taking down Hamas, we keep hearing from them [it] is going to take months or years and it’s going to take a long time.”
Goren also said the war cabinet did not share any details about any possible deal to release the hostages.
The mother of Avinatan Or, 30, decried reports of a potential deal that would only release some of the hostages, namely women and children.
- “What I said inside is that whoever agrees now to a partial deal is murdering my son. He will not see the light of day. There will not be a second time,” Ditza Or told the Ynet news site.
After the meeting, Netanyahu stressed his commitment to securing the release of the hostages, calling it “a sacred and supreme mission.”
- “We will not let up until they are returned, and this is the responsibility of me and the war cabinet,” he said in a statement.
- “I listened to the pain of the families. We spoke heart to heart. I shared with them as much as I could about the diplomatic, intelligence and operational efforts we are leading around the clock,” the premier continued, adding that he thinks about the hostages “all the time.”
- “We will not stop fighting until we bring our hostages home, destroy Hamas and ensure there will no longer be a threat from Gaza.”
Earlier Monday, some of the relatives attended a heated Knesset committee hearing on controversial legislation to impose the death penalty on terrorists, beseeching Knesset members not to consider the legislation due to fear that it might have severe repercussions for their abducted relatives.
- The families have been organizing protests, rallies, and marches to press the government on securing their loved ones’ release. On Saturday, families of hostages and thousands of their supporters demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square in a rally focused in particular on the some 40 children believed held in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s office has repeatedly cautioned against various media reports regarding the hostage negotiations, adding that it would formally notify the public in the event that a deal is actually reached.
According to recent reporting, American and Qatari officials have indicated that Israel and Hamas were closing in on a deal that would see a limited release of some hostages held in Gaza. The details of a potential agreement remain murky, given conflicting reports as to how close the sides actually were to sealing an exchange.
According to a Washington Post report this week, the deal on the table would see the release of dozens of women and children hostages being held by terrorists in Gaza, in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting.
Reporter: Is a hostage deal near?
Biden: I believe so pic.twitter.com/9ikIaBpoBp
— Acyn (@Acyn) November 20, 2023
On Monday, US President Joe Biden was asked during the annual turkey pardoning ceremony on the White House lawn, in the run up to Thursday’s US Thanksgiving holiday, whether a hostage deal was close to being reached, to which he responded: “I believe so…yes.”
He added that he could not speak publicly about it any further and then raised his hand up to show that his fingers were crossed in the hope that a deal would take place soon.
Soon after, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said, “We’re closer now to a hostage deal than we’ve been before,” declining to elaborate further.
Israel’s Channel 12 reported Monday that, following Biden’s comment, officials believe “the window of opportunity has reopened and these are critical days ahead.”
- The report said Israel wants to progress, in principle, on a deal for the release of dozens of children and women hostages. Channel 12 noted that Hamas is demanding the release of 100 male and female prisoners, a five-day pause in the fighting, and an Israeli commitment not to use its observation drones during those five days to keep tabs on what Hamas is up to.
The report quoted a senior Israeli diplomatic source saying:
- “There will be difficult days ahead. Hamas will do everything to harm the Israeli public. The deal is not something that can be finalized from today to tomorrow; freeing the hostages will take several days.”
- On Sunday, Channel 12 reported that while Israel was demanding the release of all hostage children and their mothers — about 53 people — Hamas is claiming it does not know the location of them all, as the hostages are being held by various factions and cells, and needs the pause in fighting to determine where they all are.
- The Washington Post report on Sunday cited a “detailed, six-page agreement,” that says Israel and Hamas will freeze all hostilities for at least five days while an “initial 50 or more” of the hostages taken “are released in batches every 24 hours.”
- The reported deal will also include a “significant increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance, including fuel” that will enter the Gaza Strip.
So far efforts by Qatar have led to the release of four of the hostages. A fifth hostage, a soldier, was rescued in an Israeli operation.
Also Monday, International Committee of the Red Cross president Mirjana Spoljaric met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar, her office said in a statement.
“The ICRC has persistently called for the immediate release of hostages. The ICRC is insisting that our teams be allowed to visit the hostages to check on their welfare and deliver medications, and for the hostages to be able to communicate with their families. Agreements must be reached that allow the ICRC to safely carry out this work. The ICRC cannot force its way into where hostages are held, nor do we know their location,” the statement said.
- “The ICRC does not take part in negotiations leading to the release of hostages. As a neutral humanitarian intermediary, we remain ready to facilitate any future release that the parties to the conflict agree to, as ICRC staff have already done on two occasions,” it added.
Israeli families have been critical of the Red Cross, which has so far failed to gain access to the hostages.
The hostages were taken during Hamas’s shock October 7 invasion of southern Israeli communities, when 3,000 terrorists broke through the border and murdered some 1,200 people, a majority of them civilians, slaughtered in their homes and at an outdoor music festival amid brutal atrocities.
Israel then launched an air and ground offensive with the goal of eliminating the terror group in the Strip.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.