After a source said Israel’s lead negotiator met Qatar’s prime minister, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to confirm on Saturday that new Qatar-mediated negotiations were underway to recover hostages held by Hamas in Gaza
Netanyahu sidestepped a question at a news conference about a meeting on Friday in Europe between his lead negotiator, Mossad head David Barnea, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. However, he confirmed he had given instructions to the negotiating team.
“We have serious criticisms of Qatar, about which I suppose you will hear in due course, 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.
News of a new round of negotiations, first reported by Axios, came after Israel’s military disclosed that troops had accidentally killed three hostages who approached them with a white flag after having escaped their captors in Gaza on Friday.
Netanyahu said he would not divulge details of the talks.
“There is one mistake that we can make, which is to relay our calculations to Hamas, to the world,” he said. “We shall not be getting into the details of the negotiations.”
The Gaza war, triggered by a shock Hamas killing and kidnapping spree in south Israel on Oct. 7, has shaken regional and world powers as the Palestinian civilian toll spirals.
While pledging to destroy Hamas, Israel has also sought to recover hostages held by the Iranian-backed Islamist group.
Netanyahu vowed to maintain intense military pressure on Hamas in Gaza.
“The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing,” he said.
Mossad chief Barnea met Al Thani in Europe on Friday, a key mediator in the conflict in Gaza, a source told Reuters, while sources from Egypt suggested Israel appeared to be more open to a new deal with Hamas.
’GET THE HOSTAGES BACK ALIVE’
Qatar and Egypt were mediators between Israel and Hamas in a deal that led to a week long truce at the end of November during which Hamas released more than 100 women, children and foreigners it was holding in exchange for 240 Palestinian women and teenagers freed from Israeli jails.
Axios said the Friday meeting was the first between Barnea and Al Thani since the November truce. The source who spoke to Reuters said Barnea returned to Israel early on Saturday to brief Netanyahu.
Two Egyptian security sources said Israeli officials appeared more willing, in calls with mediators, to strike a fresh deal for a Gaza ceasefire and release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the recovery of hostages.
The Egyptian sources said Israeli officials appeared to have changed their mind on some points that they had previously refused, but did not go into further detail.
There was no immediate response from Netanyahu government spokespeople to the Egyptian assessment.
Israel believes that another 20 or more of the 130 hostages still held in Gaza are dead. Families of the hostages held a rally on Saturday, demanding that Israel consider releasing senior Palestinian militants from jail in any new swap deal.
“The Israeli government needs to be active. They need to put an offer on the table, including prisoners with blood on their hands, and put the best offer on the table to get the hostages back alive,” said Ruby Chen, father of 19-year-old hostage Itay.
“We don’t want them back in bags.”
Hamas exiled leader Osama Hamdan said it would only release soldiers held captive in Gaza “until the entire aggression is stopped.” He said that would have to happen through a negotiated deal “according to the conditions set by the the resistance.”
In an apparent effort to sway Israeli public opinion, Hamas also released a video showing slain hostages and ending with the Hebrew warning: “Time is running out.”