Intense international negotiations are taking place involving diplomats, intelligence services and specialist security companies in attempts to free hostages being held in Gaza, with the most ferocious part of Israel’s offensive against Hamas due to unfold.
Highly experienced British hostage crisis experts are part of a team, The Independent has learned, in Israel and the wider region to assist in the mission and help families to be reunited with relations of the 240 people who were abducted in the cross-border raid on 7 October.
William Burns, the CIA director, and David Barnea, the head of Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, reportedly met Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, in Doha to discuss deals to release the hostages. This followed a trip to the Gulf state by former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, also to talk about the captives.
Qatar has been the main interlocutor on the four hostages freed so far. Its officials have been holding regular talks with Hamas, and one of the latest proposals to emerge has been for a three-day ceasefire and the resumption of fuel supplies into Gaza, which has been cut off by Israel. In return, Hamas is said to have offered to free a dozen captives, including six Americans. The group’s allies, Islamic Jihad, produced a video of two Israeli hostages who, it said, could be freed, without providing further details.
The Israeli government is said to have rejected the offer. However, the Israeli military has started a daily four-hour pause in operations to allow civilians still in northern Gaza to leave for the south of the Strip. And the break in fighting over the coming days could also be used to facilitate the release of hostages, according to officials.
John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson at the White House, said it provides an opportunity for the process to get under way, but the time limit needs to be extended. “It’s about getting them safe passage so they can get to safety,” he said.
A British hostage crisis operative, currently in Israel, said: “There is a real impetus to trying to get these people out as soon as possible. The stance of the Israeli government has changed, privately and publicly, and they are backing efforts being made through a variety of channels to gather information, including proof of life, open up communications through intermediaries and offer support to families.”
The operative, who has experience of dealing with hostage situations in a number of countries, continued: “There are quite a few states involved in this – those with hostages in Gaza, government and agencies in this region and beyond. States who may not be natural allies are sharing information.
“As far I know, the efforts so far have been about getting out civilian hostages. The Israeli service personnel are seen, for the time being, as part of another process. The Israeli government may have to decide at the end whether they are prepared to release Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, especially women and children, in exchange for them.
“This is very difficult and complex work, having to take place in the middle of very heavy kinetic activity, with the hostages in close proximity. They are being held in places which are likely to be affected by military action which is ratcheting up. So speed is obviously of great essence, but there are geopolitical considerations, which means a lot of factors are at play.”
Most of the captives are believed to be being held in the tunnel complex, hundreds of miles long, under Gaza. As Israel begins the final part of its military mission, into Gaza City, these will become a subterranean arena.
According to Israeli security officials, Hamas is holding around 180 hostages, Islamic Jihad has around 40, and 20 more are in the hands of clans and criminal gangs who went across the border following the Hamas fighters. More than half the captives hold foreign passports ranging from American, British, French and German, to Russian, Thai and Argentinian.
In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, and the outrage it caused in Israel, there was a feeling that the lives of the hostages may have to sacrificed – however sad a prospect that was – for the sake of the military operation needed to destroy Hamas.
But the families of those taken were determined to do everything they could to get their loved ones back. They are impassioned, articulate and have used the media – national and international – to have their voices heard. Their plight was plain to see for fellow Israelis.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defence minister Yoav Gallant and other cabinet members have met the families at their insistence, and following that, the government began to declare that getting the hostages home is a priority for the military mission.
But the families have continued with their campaign at home and abroad. Three mothers whose children were kidnapped by Hamas – Hadas Caderon, Renana Jacob and Batsheva Yahalomi – have been in London to speak to the media and politicians as part of an international push.
They have also met the Qatari ambassador to London, Fahad bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah, who they say told them that his country would do “everything in their power” to release the hostages.
Avichai Brodutch, whose wife and three children are being held in Gaza, was the first to start the families’ vigil outside the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, something which has become a widely publicised symbol of their efforts. He spoke to the Qatari ambassador to the US, Meshal bin Hamad al Thani, stressing afterwards: “We have got to use all the possibilities we have – we should seek help from anyone who can help us. That is the obvious thing to do and we expect the government to do.”
There is another vigil which has also become symbolic – one taking outside the home of Mr Netanyahu. In this gathering the prime minister is blamed for the disastrous intelligence failure which allowed the Hamas raid to take place. Many also blame him and his hard-right coalition government for what they see as its attempt to suborn Israel’s constitution and judiciary which left the country divided and vulnerable.
Gadi Kedem, who lost six members of his family in the massacre said: “I accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of leading Israel to the biggest disaster in its history. I accuse him of tearing apart the nation with the judicial coup which weakened the state in [the] face of enemies. I accuse of him of ignoring the warnings of the heads of the defence organisations. The blood of my family is on his hands.”
Jonathan Shimriz, whose 26-year-old brother Alon was among those abducted, was similarly uncompromising in his view: “Netanyahu shouldn’t just be dismissed, he should be sent to jail. Am I being political? Yes. I’m also being personal – because of Netanyahu my brother is in the hands of terrorists.”
Not all the families of hostages have such antipathy towards Mr Netanyahu. But getting back as many of the abducted as possible would undoubtedly help salvage some of the prime minister’s tarnished reputation, with investigations due to be launched into the circumstances surrounding the Hamas raid.
A British operative familiar with the attempts to free the hostages said: “There has been a lot of talk about the 'day after' in terms of what happens to Gaza if and when the Israelis destroy Hamas. The Netanyahu government is thinking in terms of the ‘day after’ in terms of what happens to them after the war is over. Success with the hostages will certainly be a help in what’s going to be a very difficult scenario.”