Netanyahu hints hostage deal negotiations under way

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Cairo/Gaza: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have confirmed new negotiations to recover hostages held by Hamas were under way after a source said Israel’s intelligence chief met the prime minister of Qatar, a country mediating in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a televised press conference a day after Israeli forces mistakenly killed three of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas, Netanyahu called the conflict an existential war that must be fought until victory, despite pressure and costs, and said Gaza would be demilitarised and under Israeli security control.

Families of hostages and their supporters rally in Tel Aviv after the news that the IDF killed three Israeli hostages who were waving a white flag.Credit: Getty

He said Israel’s offensive in Gaza had helped clinch a partial hostage-release deal in November and vowed to maintain intense military pressure on Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza and that he has vowed to destroy.

“The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing,” he said.

Netanyahu spoke after the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, met Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Europe on Saturday (AEDT), according to a source with knowledge of the matter, and attention turned to a possible new Gaza truce and a prisoner and hostage deal.

Netanyahu sidestepped a question about the meeting, but confirmed he had given instructions to the negotiating team.

“We have serious criticisms of Qatar … but right now we are trying to complete the recovery of our hostages,” he said, alluding to the gas-rich Gulf state’s ties to Hamas and Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

A Hamas statement, said the group “affirms its position not to open any negotiations to exchange prisoners unless the aggression against our people stops once and for all,” adding: “The movement communicated this position to all mediators.”

Israel bombarded targets across Gaza overnight, but two Egyptian security sources said Israeli officials now appeared more willing to work towards a ceasefire and an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

Israel’s counterattack on Gaza – after a surprise cross-border assault on October 7 in which Hamas militants killed 1200 people and captured 240 hostages – has killed close to 19,000 people, according to Gaza health authorities. Thousands more are feared buried under rubble.

An Israeli military official said the three hostages killed had been holding a white flag, according to an initial inquiry. Their deaths have put increased pressure on Netanyahu to find a way to secure the release of those held.

As Netanyahu spoke, several hundred people staged a protest in Tel Aviv, with some holding placards, including one saying “get them out of hell.” A speaker shouted: “Bring them home now!”

The meeting in Europe was apparently the first between senior officials from Israel and Qatar, which has been acting as a mediator, since the collapse of a seven-day ceasefire in late November.

Combat has intensified in the past two weeks since the truce, which had allowed dozens of Israeli hostages held in Gaza to be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Israeli targets across Gaza overnight included a crowded YMCA building, Palestinian health officials reporting dozens killed or wounded, despite a renewed US call to scale down the campaign and focus on Hamas leaders.

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip.Credit: AP

The YMCA has been sheltering hundreds of displaced people.

Two Christian women who had taken refuge in a church complex were shot dead by an Israeli soldier, Roman Catholic Church authorities said. Seven other people were shot and wounded. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.

In Khan Younis in Gaza’s south, Palestinian health officials said the Nasser Hospital had received 20 Palestinians killed in airstrikes overnight, in addition to dozens of wounded, including women and children.

The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said at least three dozen people had been killed in strikes on three houses in the Jabalia refugee camp, which health officials were unable to confirm.

The Israeli military said it had bombed a building in Jabalia from the air after its forces came under fire and Hamas militants were seen on the roof.

Early on Sunday (AEDT), residents reported intensified fighting in the centre of Khan Younis, with Israeli planes and tanks bombing and shelling and the sound of rocket grenades, apparently fired by Hamas fighters.


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