By Isabel Kershner
The European Union’s leaders were meeting in Brussels on As Israel awaited a signal from Egyptian and Qatari mediators about whether Hamas’ military leaders were prepared to advance talks on a possible cease-fire and hostage release, differences among the families of the more than 100 captives remaining in the Gaza Strip were emerging.
Some are pushing for a deal at all costs, while others are urging the government to fight on against Hamas until victory. For months, the families of the hostages have been a key — and largely united — voice in putting pressure on the Israeli government to prioritize efforts to secure their release. Now some are backing calls for a tougher stance toward Hamas, including blocking all aid to Gaza, even as the government is under international pressure to increase humanitarian assistance.
Those differences have added to political fighting in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing threats from coalition partners and sparring with the opposition leader, who has offered him political cover for a hostage release.
Hamas’ exiled political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said this week that Hamas had received the outline of a deal, sketched out Sunday by U.S., Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials at a high-level meeting in Paris. Officials have said the deal describes a phased process beginning with a pause in the fighting for several weeks, to allow for the return of a first group of about three dozen of the most vulnerable hostages, including women and any children left alive, as well as sick or wounded captives, in return for Palestinian prisoners. Further stages could extend the truce and include other categories of hostages, including soldiers.
Hamas leaders have demanded that any deal ultimately brings an end to the war in Gaza — a condition that Netanyahu has rejected. Netanyahu said he would not release “thousands” of Palestinian prisoners but has not publicly ruled out releasing prisoners of value to Hamas, including many convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis.
As some details of the framework have become public, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a far-right party that Netanyahu relies on to hold a majority in parliament, has publicly threatened to leave the coalition, warning that “an excessive deal equals dismantling the government.” Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right minister of finance, has declared that ending the war is not an option.
In public, at least, Netanyahu was taking a hard line that appeared to be aimed at reassuring far-right coalition partners. In a video statement released late Wednesday, Netanyahu emphasized that he would not accept a deal “at any price” and reiterated that Israel would not withdraw its forces from Gaza or release thousands of Palestinian prisoners.
“We are constantly working to release our hostages and to achieve the other objectives of the war: Hamas’ destruction and to ensure that Gaza is not a threat to Israel,” he said. “We are working on all three of them together, and we will not concede any of them.”
With Netanyahu’s hold on power tenuous, the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, offered this week to provide him with a political “safety net” for a hostage deal, either by voting for it from the opposition or by temporarily joining his government.
But the gesture was received with little enthusiasm by Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party. “Yair Lapid is pushing for an immediate end to the war, without a total victory,” the party said in a statement Wednesday. “We will not agree to that.”
Lapid has not called to stop the war and leave the Hamas leadership in Gaza in power, according to a person close to the opposition leader, but he has been critical of Netanyahu’s refusal to present a strategy for the day after the war in Gaza and a vision for the future of the enclave.
In an interview published in Thursday’s Maariv newspaper, Lapid said that Netanyahu was “no longer fit” to serve as prime minister and called for an alternative government without him, or for elections.
The pressure on Netanyahu has been rising as some relatives of captives in Gaza, alongside far-right politicians, have participated in protests at border crossings to try to block humanitarian assistance from entering the enclave.
Many relatives of hostages and their supporters have called for releasing hostages to be a higher priority than any other war goal, though others have urged the government not to agree to any cease-fire or “a skewed deal.”
Some Israeli military reservists and relatives of hostages have planned a multiday march beginning Sunday near the Gaza border and culminating in a demonstration four days later in Jerusalem. “We expect this war to continue until final victory,” organizers said in a statement.
More than 240 people were taken hostage during the Hamas-led terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7, in which Israeli officials say 1,200 people were killed. During a seven-day pause in November, women and children were among more than 100 hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and detainees.
More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza in Israel’s retaliatory military campaign since Oct. 7, according to health officials in the enclave.