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Relatives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza burst into a committee meeting in Israel’s parliament on Monday, escalating a campaign for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal to return the captives.
The protest, held a day after relatives of the 130 hostages still held by Hamas blocked traffic outside the premier’s house in Jerusalem, came as Netanyahu denied that Hamas was offering a meaningful deal to release the hostages.
The prime minister is facing intensifying domestic pressure to secure their release, including from some members of his own war cabinet, one of whom last week said the hostages were unlikely to be returned alive without a deal with the Palestinian militant group.
Netanyahu said at a meeting with hostages’ families: “Contrary to what is being said — there is no genuine proposal by Hamas, this is not true. I will say this as clearly as I can because there are so many incorrect items that are certainly causing you pain.”
Netanyahu said on Sunday that in exchange for releasing the remaining hostages, who have been held for 108 days, Hamas was demanding that Israel end the war in Gaza; withdraw its forces; release members of the Nukhba unit that led Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel; and leave Hamas in power.
“Were we to agree to this, our soldiers would have fallen in vain,” he said.
According to Israeli officials, Hamas captured about 250 hostages during their October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and triggered the war.
In November, Hamas released 110 of the hostages as part of a deal mediated by Qatar, under which Israel and Hamas also agreed to a temporary ceasefire. In return, Israel allowed more aid into Gaza and freed 240 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.
However, the fragile truce collapsed on December 2, and Israel resumed its offensive in Gaza, which has now killed more than 25,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, and displaced 1.9mn of the enclave’s 2.3mn inhabitants.
The latest effort to revive the hostage talks, led by Qatar, the US and Egypt, has focused on negotiating a “multiphase” agreement between Israel and Hamas that would include a longer truce, the release of all the hostages, and increased humanitarian aid into the devastated Gaza Strip.
The aim would be to use the truce to negotiate a permanent ceasefire, which Hamas is insisting on as part of any deal, according to a person familiar with the talks.
The militant group had agreed to a multi-month temporary truce, but Israel was demanding a shorter timeframe, the person said. “It’s a back and forth between the parties,” the person said.
Israel’s war cabinet, which has overall responsibility for its campaign in Gaza, is split over the best way to bring home the hostages.
In a television interview broadcast last week, Gadi Eisenkot, one of the war cabinet’s five members, said it was time to “say bravely that it is impossible to return the hostages alive in the near future without an agreement [with Hamas]”, and that Israel should consider halting the fighting for a “significant” period of time as part of any such deal.
However, Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant have repeatedly argued that they believe the only way to bring the hostages home is by maintaining intense military pressure on Hamas.
Netanyahu reiterated this stance on Sunday, saying that “only total victory will ensure the elimination of Hamas and the return of all our hostages”.
He also insisted that once the war in Gaza was over he would demand “full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River” and would continue to resist the establishment of a Palestinian state, despite mounting international pressure for a two-state solution to the conflict.
“My insistence is what has prevented — over the years — the establishment of a Palestinian state that would have constituted an existential danger to Israel,” he said. “As long as I am prime minister, I will continue to strongly insist on this.”