The government was expected to approve late Tuesday night a partial hostage deal that could include a pause in the Gaza war in exchange for a release of up to 80 out of over 239 people seized by terrorists during Hamas’ infiltration of southern Israel on October 7.
“We have a difficult decision before us tonight, but it is a correct decision,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting.
Opponents of the deal have warned that it will harm Israel’s ability to secure the release of all the hostages and complicate Israel’s military campaign to oust Hamas from Gaza. They have also warned that it will be difficult to resume the war once it has been temporarily halted.
Netanyahu dismissed those charges explaining that the IDF planned to resume the war once the deal was executed.
“I want to clarify. We are at war and will continue to be at war until we obtain all our objectives, to destroy Hamas and to return all our captives and missing persons,” he said.
“We will also ensure that there won’t be any entity in Gaza that will threaten Israel,” Netanyahu stated.
He recalled how he and the war cabinet had met with the families of the hostages the previous night.
“I told them that the return of the hostages is a sacred and primary mission that I swore to complete,” Netanyahu said.
“This war has phases and so does the return of the hostages,” he said.
The entire security establishment fully backs this deal, he said. This agreement will allow the IDF to better prepare for the rest of the war, Netanyahu said, adding that neither the lives of the soldiers nor the intelligence gathering apparatus would be harmed in that period.
Netanyahu said he had spoken with US President Joe Biden. As a result of that talk, Biden had intervened and secured better terms for the deal, Netanyahu explained.
The deal, mediated by Qatar, would create the first long-term pause in the fighting since Israel embarked on its military campaign to oust Hamas from Gaza. It comes amid increased international pressure for a ceasefire.
Under the broad contours of the deal, 50 hostages would be released, within the first four days in exchange for a pause in the fighting during those 96 hours.
Some 40 children and 13 mothers are held hostage. It’s expected that some, but not all, would be part of that first batch of hostages.
The 50 hostages would be freed in smaller groups during those days and not all at once.
Israel would in exchange release some 150 Palestinian women and minors held in its jails on security related offenses, but none of them would those directly involved in terror attacks with fatalities.
There is a possibility for the release of an additional 30 hostages held in Gaza should the pause in the fighting be extended for up to another four days.
All those slated for release are alive and have Israeli citizenship.
Hamas could release Thai citizens
Separately Hamas may unilaterally free those among the hostages who have Thai citizenship. It’s also possible that other governments may work out other deals for their citizens held in Gaza.
During the government meeting, Netanyahu clarified that the deal also included an agreement by which representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross could visit the hostages who would remain in captivity and supply them with medicine.
As part of the deal fuel can enter Gaza during the pause in the fighting. Israel has objected to the entry of fuel to the enclave out of fear that Hamas would seize it for military use.
There will be a six-hour window each day during which IDF aerial surveillance of Gaza will be halted.
“There are other intelligence-gathering capabilities. We will not be blind in those 6 hours when there are no drones and balloons in the air,” an Israeli official told reporters.
Those Palestinians who fled northern Gaza for the south during the last weeks of fighting would not be allowed to return home during the pause, given that the IDF is expected to resume its military campaign once the pause is ended.
The IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet are in favor of the broad outline of the deal.
The deal has sparked sharp debate within the Israeli public and among coalition politicians, even as the government was expected to pass it.
The Religious Zionist party headed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit party headed by Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir stated before the meeting that they planned to opposed the deal.
Such an agreement is “bad for Israeli security, bad for the captives, and bad for the IDF soldiers,” the RZP stated.
It noted that obviously, its heart went out to the families and that it, like them, wanted to see all the captives safely returned.
“It is precisely for this reason that the deal should not be approved,” the RZP said.
The pressure exerted by the IDF’s military campaign is working or Hamas would not have agreed to this initial agreement, it said.
Israel should continue to exert that kind of pressure until Hamas agrees to release all the hostages rather than prematurely making a deal, it stated.
Hamas is “desperate” for a pause in the fighting so that it can restrengthen its forces and be better prepared to battle the IDF, the Religious Zionist Party stated.
This deal also abandoned the majority of the hostages and ensures that Hamas will demand a higher price for their release, the RZP said. It could even allow for Hamas to more successfully hide them within Gaza, it stated.
Then there is the issue of the IDF soldiers in Gaza who will be exposed to potential attacks and kidnapping attempted during the temporary truce, it said.
Such a step increases the risk of additional kidnappings both in Israel and around the globe, the RZP explained.
This party plans to stand firm “like a wall” against any attempt to discontinue the military campaign as it insisted that Hamas must be ousted from Gaza and all the hostages returned.
Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, who is not a member of the government said she supported the deal.
“My heart goes out to the families of the hostages for the grief that the politicians of the messianic right are causing them, and I stand with all those from the security establishment that support the deal.”
“The opposition of Smotrich and Ben Gvir exposes their long-standing scam: for them, the State of Israel is the Messiah’s donkey, which in the end is to be a theological state for which Jewish lives must be sacrificed,” she stated.
“Therefore, they have no problem sacrificing the lives of the hostages; they know that a deal will bring the end of the fighting closer and the return to the Gush Katif settlements will be further away. These are people who need to be distanced from the government and from public life to save not only the hostages but also the State of Israel,” Michaeli said.