Amid reports circulating that a deal may be in sight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow war ministers met Monday evening with the families of some 240 hostages held by Hamas and other terrorist factions in the Gaza Strip since the atrocities of October 7. throughout southern Israel.
The three-hour meeting was held at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, but initially degenerated into chaotic scenes amid clashes with some of the families who were denied initial entry to the meeting.
The families said they had provided a list of 107 representatives to the prime minister’s office in advance, but upon arrival many were told there was not enough space in the auditorium reserved for the meeting so they can all attend.
Some families waited outside in the cold for more than an hour. All representatives were eventually allowed to attend.
Several family members left in the middle of the meeting, angered by the conflicting messages the government had given them regarding the war’s goals.
“A few days ago we met with (war ministers Benny) Gantz and (Gadi) Eisenkot. They told us unequivocally that the primary objective of the war is the return of the hostages,” Udi Goren, whose cousin is Gaza hostage Tal Haimi, told reporters after the meeting.
However, he added that Netanyahu told the hostages’ families that the goal of destroying Hamas was on par with returning the hostages, which infuriated those present, who felt their Relatives are allowed to stay in Gaza longer, as a result.
“What we heard is that overthrowing Hamas and bringing the hostages (home) are… equally important,” Goren said. “It’s incredibly disappointing because…we know that toppling Hamas, as we keep hearing, is going to take months, if not years, and it’s going to take a long time.”
Goren also said the war cabinet had not shared any details about a possible deal to release the hostages.
The mother of Avinatan Or, 30, deplored reports of a possible agreement which would only allow the release of some of the hostages, namely women and children.
“What I said inside is that anyone who now accepts a partial deal is murdering my son. It will not see the light of day. There will be no 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 give up until they return, and that 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 possible about the diplomatic, intelligence and operational efforts that we are carrying out around the clock,” the Prime Minister continued, adding that he thinks “all the time” about the hostages.
“We will not stop the fighting until we bring our hostages home, destroy Hamas and ensure that there is no longer 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, imploring Knesset members not to consider the legislation out of fear that it could have serious repercussions on their abducted loved ones.
Families have organized demonstrations, rallies and marches to pressure the government to secure the release of their loved ones. Families of hostages and thousands of their supporters demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square on Saturday in a rally focused particularly on the approximately 40 children believed to be detained in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s office has repeatedly warned against various media reports regarding the hostage negotiations, adding that he would officially inform the public if a deal was indeed reached.
According to recent reports, US and Qatari officials indicated that Israel and Hamas were close to reaching an agreement providing for a limited release of some hostages held in Gaza. Details of a potential deal remain murky, given conflicting reports about how close the parties actually were to completing a trade.
According to a Washington Post article published this week, the deal on the table would provide for the release of dozens of women and children held by terrorists in Gaza, in exchange for a five-day pause in the fighting.
On Monday, during the annual turkey amnesty ceremony on the White House lawn in the run-up to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, on Thursday, US President Joe Biden was asked whether a deal The hostages were about to be concluded. He replied: “I believe so. …Yes.”
He added that he could no longer speak about it publicly and then raised his hand to show that he was crossing his fingers in the hope that a deal would be reached quickly.
Shortly afterward, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “We are now closer to a hostage agreement than before,” declining to elaborate.
Israel’s Channel 12 reported Monday that following Biden’s comment, officials believe “the window of opportunity has reopened and we are in critical days.”
The report says Israel wants to move forward, in principle, toward an agreement for the release of dozens of child and female hostages. Channel 12 noted that Hamas was demanding the release of 100 male and female prisoners, a five-day pause in fighting and an Israeli commitment not to use its observation drones during those five days to keep tabs on what was happening. what Hamas is doing.
The report quotes a senior Israeli diplomatic source as saying: “There will be difficult days ahead. Hamas will do anything to harm the Israeli public. The agreement cannot be finalized from today to tomorrow; the release of the hostages will take several days.
On Sunday, Channel 12 reported that while Israel demanded the release of all the child hostages and their mothers – around 53 people – Hamas claimed not to know the locations of all of them, as the hostages are held by various factions and cells. and needs a break from the fighting to figure out where they all are.
The Washington Post on Sunday cited a “detailed six-page agreement,” which states that Israel and Hamas will freeze all hostilities for at least five days while “50 or more initial hostages” will be released in batches every 24 hours. hours.”
The announced agreement will also include a “significant increase in the amount of humanitarian aid, including fuel” that will enter the Gaza Strip.
Qatar’s efforts so far have led to the release of four of the hostages. A fifth hostage, a soldier, was rescued during 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 continued to demand the immediate release of the hostages. The ICRC insists that our teams be allowed to visit the hostages to check their health and deliver medicine, and so that the hostages can communicate with their families. Agreements must be reached to allow the ICRC to carry out this work safely. The ICRC cannot forcibly enter the places where the hostages are being held, nor do we know their location,” the statement said.
“The ICRC does not participate in the negotiations leading to the release of the hostages. As a neutral humanitarian intermediary, we remain ready to facilitate any future release agreed by the parties to the conflict, as ICRC staff have already done twice,” the text adds.
Israeli families have criticized the Red Cross, which has so far failed to gain access to the hostages.
The hostages were taken during Hamas’ shock October 7 invasion of southern Israeli communities, when 3,000 terrorists crossed the border and murdered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, massacred in their homes and at an outdoor music festival amid brutal atrocities.
Israel then launched an air and ground offensive with the aim of eliminating the terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.