Prime Minister Netanyahu prepares to restart war as end of pause nears

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the Gaza war would resume as the war cabinet discussed hostage releases, and Doha attempted to mediate a series of agreements that could extend the temporary ceasefire, whose deadline was set to expire on Thursday morning.

“In recent days I have heard a question: After completing this stage of the return of our hostages, will Israel go back to the fighting? My answer is an unequivocal yes,” said Netanyahu.

“There is no situation in which we do not go back to fighting until the end. This is my policy. The entire security cabinet is behind it. The entire government is behind it. The soldiers are behind it. The people are behind it – this is exactly what we will do,” he stated.

Senior Hamas member Osama Hamdan told the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV that the “resistance has prepared itself for all possibilities after the end of the ceasefire. If the occupation carries out any aggression, the resistance is ready, and if the calm continues, we will continue the calm.”

They spoke as Israel hit a critical juncture concerning the hostage deals and the war, which has been on hold since Friday morning.

In the intervening days, 65 Israeli hostages had been welcomed home to huge fanfare, in five groups over five nights, which have almost become a nightly ritual of joy at the return of the captives from Gaza, where they have been held since Hamas and other terror groups seized them during its October 7 attack and sadness at the absence of those still held in the enclave.

The IDF said it believes some 159 hostages are still in Gaza.

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Two Israeli-Russian captives returned to Israel on Wednesday but the release of an additional 10 Israelis slated to be freed – five women and five children – which had been expected to go smoothly early in the evening was delayed for unspecified reasons and appeared to be finally underway close to midnight.

The families of the 10 had already been notified and were awaiting their loved ones. While the focus was on the hostage return, there was no simultaneous announcement of an additional mini-hostage deal that would extend the lull in the Gaza war beyond Thursday morning.

Secretary of State Blinken speaks

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters the US wanted to see the lull in Gaza extended, as he spoke in Brussels before he arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday where he will meet with Israel’s war cabinet.

“I expect to take that up tomorrow when I’m in Israel meeting with the government. And again, we have other colleagues in the government who are intensely working on that,” Blinken said.

“We’d like to see the pause extended because what it has enabled first and foremost is hostages being released, coming home, being reunited with their families.

“So its continuation, by definition, means that more hostages would be coming home,” he said.

“Clearly, that’s something we want, and I believe it’s also something that Israel wants. They’re also intensely focused on bringing their people home. So we’re working on that. As you know, we’re working on that every single day,” Blinken stressed.

Special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens is also expected to visit Israel on Thursday.

There are some eight Americans who are among the captives.

Qatar and Egypt, which are mediating indirect talks between Hamas and Israel in Doha with the help of the US are reportedly working on two deals simultaneously.

The larger and more significant one could include the release of all the remaining 159 hostages and an end to the Gaza war that began when Hamas killed over 1,200 people when it infiltrated Israel on October 7.

Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari appeared to publicly confirm these efforts during a conversation with CNN.

“Our negotiations regarding women and children take a paramount position within the discussions, but obviously we are moving towards civilian men being released,” Ansari said as he referenced the larger deal.

But for Qatar to focus on that larger deal it first has to extend the lull in the fighting beyond Thursday morning.

Such an arrangement could see the release of 20 to 30 Israelis over the next two to three days through an extension of an existing deal, leaving slightly less than 139 or 149 in captivity by Saturday or Sunday.

The initial deal that went into effect on Friday has sought to secure the release of all 98 women and children in Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen with Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, November 25, 2023 (credit: GPO/AVI OHAYON)

The initial release was based on three formulas. Ten Israeli hostages are worth 24 hours of a lull in the Gaza war, which has been paused since Friday morning to allow for captive releases. For every day the Gaza war is on hold, at least 200 trucks of humanitarian aid can enter the Strip.

For every Israeli woman or child captive freed, Israel would release three jailed Palestinian women and minors held on security-related offenses. To date, some 180 such prisoners have been freed and another 30 are set to be released once the ten Israeli hostages are home.

Mossad chief David Barnea, CIA chief William Burns, and Egyptian intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Abbas Kamel were in Qatar to discuss the matter on Tuesday.

Barnea and Burns have sought to extend the initial deal and simultaneously put in place a new one to deal with male hostages, five female soldiers, and those who have perished.

That second larger deal under discussion would allow for those 150 Israeli captives, out of the 240 hostages Hamas seized during its infiltration of southern Israel on October 7, to be freed.

An article about the potential deal published in The Washington Post on Wednesday said the new deal would separate the remaining hostages into five categories. This would be men who are too old for reserve duty, male reservists, men serving in the army, the five fable soldiers, and those who have perished.

It’s expected that the government could support a deal for the release of all the hostages, even if it includes the release of Palestinian men jailed for serious terror offenses.

The breaking point is expected to be any inclusion in the deal of an end to the Gaza war. Israel has been clear about its intention to resume its military campaign to oust Hamas from Gaza once the hostages are freed. Hamas, in turn, wants to free hostages in exchange for an end to the war.

Ceasefire efforts have “not yet matured,” Hamdan said.

“What has been presented to us so far to extend the ceasefire, we do not find worthy of study,” added Hamdan, stressing that Hamas would only accept the end of the war, the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Hamdan stated that Hamas would only speak about the release of soldiers held hostage if the war was ended.

Many in the international community, however, have focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, caused by the war including the high death toll. Hamas has asserted that some 14,800 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in war-related violence.

Blinken is expected to press Israel on both points during his visit on Thursday.

The temporary ceasefire has allowed about 800 aid trucks to enter Gaza, and the first of three US planes with humanitarian supplies for Gaza landed in Egypt on Tuesday.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths was to travel to the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday to discuss opening the Kerem Shalom crossing to allow for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza from Israel.

Located at the intersection of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and Egypt, the Kerem Shalom crossing transported more than 60% of the aid going into Gaza before the current conflict.

Aid for Gaza now comes through the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, which was designed for pedestrian crossings and not trucks.

Reuters and Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.