Hostage deal slips away as both sides dig in

A woman walks past posters of two men with Arabic writing
A woman walks past posters depicting Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (L), and Abu Obeida (R), a leader of Hamas' armed wing on a wall in the Burj al-Barajneh camp for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (ANWAR AMRO - AFP/ Haaretz)

Hopes that hostages would be released this week have faltered as Hamas demands complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Netanyahu talks “full victory”.

At least 32 of the 136 hostages still in Gaza are dead, according to a new report by the New York Times, citing four anonymous military officials. The report updates the 29 hostages Israel’s military has previously confirmed as dead.

There had been hopes that a deal to release the remaining hostages would be reached this week. Hamas kidnapped 253 people from Israel during its October 7 massacre. It released 104 in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and the release of some Palestinians prisoners in November and 13 were confirmed dead before that date.

But the optimism was premature and excessive. Hamas’ responses to the Qatari-Egyptian proposal for freeing the hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and staged temporary ceasefires are not encouraging.

After conflicting messages in recent weeks, it seems the organisation’s leadership is demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a condition for a new deal.

It is not entirely clear if this is a precondition for the release of any hostages, or if it is to be implemented gradually over the course of the agreement. If it’s the latter, the mediators may still have something to work with.

Israel’s leaders also seem to be in no rush. Since details of the proposal began to trickle out over a week ago, Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking tough.

The prime minister not only vows to press on until final victory over Hamas, he also declares he won’t agree to pause the fighting and will refuse to release thousands of terrorists (even though it’s unclear if this is indeed the price Hamas is demanding in the first phase, which reportedly consists of releasing about 35 female, older, ill and injured). On Monday, he surpassed himself by announcing that the war would not end before Israel kills the leaders of Hamas – not exactly an incentive for the group to sign a deal.

Likud cabinet ministers and far-right parties in the governing coalition have also said there will be no concessions to Hamas. A few participants in Sunday’s cabinet meeting said they suspected the pronouncements by ministers condemning concessions to Hamas were orchestrated in advance by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said this week there could be no solution to Israel’s security issues except “absolute victory” over the militant group.

In a rebuff to the Biden administration and the visiting US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, Netanyahu said it would require months more fighting before Hamas was defeated.

Suggesting victory was “within reach”, the Israeli PM said: “There is no alternative for the military collapse [of Hamas]. There will not be a civilian collapse [of Hamas rule] without a military one.”

Blinken maintained there was still some room for optimism on a deal.

“While there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” Blinken told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv. “We also see space in what came back to pursue negotiations to see if we can get to an agreement, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Hamas’ focus is on the length and permanence of ceasefire and the need for humanitarian aid, with the release of Palestinian prisoners as a secondary issue.

Gershon Baskin, who was a key negotiator in the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners including October 7 architect Yaya Sinwar, wrote this week that Hamas will have no difficulty recruiting new leaders if Israel succeeds in decapitating Hamas.

“In the absence of peace, ongoing occupation and economic siege on Gaza, successive rounds of violence – especially this brutal war – thousands of potential Sinwars are being created. After each war Hamas recruits its new cadets in the Nukhba, it’s elite force, from bereaved families. They are given the promise of paradise and revenge, unafraid of fighting and dying for their cause.”

Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz wrote that Netanyahu’s call for “absolute victory” is meaningless without military strategy for success and a long-term vision for Gaza.

“The Israeli government is facing near-impossible, near-contradictory imperatives: It needs to defeat an enemy that has perpetrated the most monstrous attack on Israelis in our history — in order to ensure that October 7 cannot happen again, deter our other enemies, and restore our citizens’ security. And it needs to secure the release of civilian hostages who were failed by the state and whose fate is being cynically leveraged by the enemy that abducted them to try to secure survival.

“Nobody envies the government the challenges it now faces. But it risks failing its people again the longer it refuses to so much as debate, much less decide on, its strategic vision for Gaza; the longer it denies the IDF the room for manoeuvre it needs to complete the dismantling of Hamas’s army; the longer it enables Hamas to remain the only political address in Gaza, increasingly commandeering the humanitarian aid entering the Strip; and the longer it exudes an intolerable political disunity and practical dysfunction utterly at odds with the cohesive fighting forces putting their lives on the line in Israel’s defence.”

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At least 32 of 136 remaining hostages in Gaza are dead — report (Times of Israel)

Hamas is in no hurry to seal a hostage deal. Neither is Netanyahu’s government  (Amos Harel, Haaretz)

Hostages remain Sinwar’s most effective lever and his only bargaining chip in talks (Jack Khoury, Haaretz)

 A cease-fire deal would be a huge victory for Hamas, but Israel has no choice (Gershon Baskin, Haaretz)

With IDF hamstrung and Hamas scenting a way out, Netanyahu dodges strategic decisions (David Horovitz, Times of Israel)

Netanyahu rejects Gaza ceasefire deal and says victory is ‘within reach’ (Guardian)

Blinken says Hamas response on hostages opens space for deal (Bloomberg)