Oct 24, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Israel willing to delay Gaza invasion to discuss large release of hostages

Protesters in London call for the release of hostages in Gaza on Monday, holding up signs that say "Kidnapped."

Protesters in London on Monday call for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Getty Images

Israel is willing to delay a ground invasion of Gaza for a few days to allow talks on releasing a large number of the hostages Hamas is holding there, two Israeli officials tell Axios.

  • "Both Israel and the Biden administration want to exhaust every effort to try and get hostages out of Gaza. If Hamas proposes a big package, of course we will be ready to do things in return," a senior Israeli official said.

Why it matters: Hamas has held more than 200 hostages in Gaza since its militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Israeli officials say that once their military launches a ground invasion, a deal for hostages will be nearly impossible.

  • The Israelis told Egyptian mediators that if Hamas wants a some kind of hostage deal, it needs to release all the women and children it's holding, the Israeli officials said.

State of play: The Israelis' stance on hostages comes as the Biden administration is trying to nudge Israel toward delaying a ground war in Gaza. The U.S. is moving military assets into the region to show support for Israel — and to try to discourage others, such as Iran-backed Hezbollah, from joining the war.

  • U.S. officials believe the hostages include several of the 10 Americans who are unaccounted for in Gaza.

The Israeli officials acknowledge it's likely that some hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes that have targeted Hamas positions in Gaza during the last two weeks.

  • Khaled Meshal, a Hamas official, told Sky News on Monday that the hostages are being held in several locations on the Gaza Strip, and claimed that Israeli airstrikes had killed 22 hostages. That number couldn't be verified by Axios.

Driving the news: Hamas has released four hostages in recent days, in groups of two.

  • On Monday, Hamas released two Israeli women, Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, and Nurit Cooper, 79, in a deal facilitated by an Egyptian mediator.
  • Last week the terror group released two American women, Judith Raanan and her daughter, Natalie, of Evanston, Ill. A mediator from Qatar aided that release.

Behind the scenes: Hamas said in a statement it had proposed releasing the Israeli women over the weekend but that Israel refused.

  • Israeli officials confirmed that — and said Hamas initially demanded that in return, Israel stop its airstrikes on Gaza for six hours.
  • The Israeli officials said they refused because they didn't want to create a precedent in which Hamas would release two hostages every time it wanted a ceasefire.
  • The Israelis' concern was that every such ceasefire can allow Hamas to regroup, and give the group's leaders a chance to move from one hiding place to another without being targeted.

Between the lines: President Biden's team is holding negotiations with Israel and the Qatari and Egyptian mediators, who are talking with Hamas.

  • Steven Gillen, the U.S. deputy special envoy for hostage affairs, arrived in Israel several days after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel and has been working with his Israeli counterparts and the families of Americans who are unaccounted for or being held hostage.
  • Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and "reaffirmed [Biden's] commitment to ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages taken by Hamas," the White House said in a statement.

The other side: Meshal, the Hamas official, told Sky News that if Israel stops its airstrikes in Gaza, Qatari and Egyptian officials will help find a way to have the hostages released.

Yes, but: Israeli officials stress that even if a hostage deal were struck, the Israeli military wouldn't drop its plans for a ground assault in Gaza.

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