An Israeli official has dismissed reports that Hamas has softened its stance in negotiations over the release of additional hostages being held by the terrorist group in Gaza.
“The publications are a fake. The opposite is true. There is a hardening of positions. Hamas is climbing high on the tree,” the official told Channel 12 on Wednesday, while stressing that a “breakthrough soon” is still possible.
Citing Egyptian officials, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Hamas was willing to discuss a deal to release civilian women and children hostages in exchange for a “significant” halt to hostilities.
There are 108 hostages alive in Gaza out of 253 taken during Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, according to Israeli estimates. Hamas is also believed to be holding 28 bodies, including 24 from those taken on Oct. 7. In November, 105 hostages were released as part of a prisoner exchange deal that included a temporary ceasefire.
Nineteen women and two children remain in Gaza, according to the Journal report. Some of the women are soldiers, and five could be dead.
If true, the announcement would have marked a shift in the terror group’s position.
Hamas had rejected an Israeli proposal for a two-month ceasefire in exchange for the staged release of the 136 remaining hostages being held in the Gaza Strip, a senior Egyptian official told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
The official said Hamas leaders also rejected a demand to leave Gaza and are insisting that the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from the coastal enclave and allow the terrorist organization to regroup.
Hamas was previously demanding a total end to the war in a deal to release the remaining hostages, Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported on Saturday, citing senior Israeli officials.
Additionally, the terrorist organization was demanding Israel’s complete withdrawal of its forces from Gaza and international guarantees that it would be allowed to remain in power in the Strip.
Cairo and Doha and have taken a prominent role in hostage release negotiations, with the United States also playing a mediating role. Brett McGurk, the U.S. National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, is in the region this week and participated in talks on another hostage deal.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that the negotiations are “sober and serious,” confirming that McGurk was involved in the discussions.
Both sides have rejected multiple proposals since the end of the last ceasefire on Nov. 30.
The hostages were captured on Oct. 7 when thousands of heavily armed Hamas terrorists stormed across the Israeli border from Gaza, murdering 1,200 people and wounding thousands more, committing mass rape, mutilation, torture, and desecration of corpses, among other atrocities.
With regard to the current round of negotiations, the Egyptian officials cautioned in the Journal‘s report that a deal was not imminent and that talks could still collapse. They added that Israeli officials are skeptical of a potential breakthrough but are willing to discuss a framework for a possible agreement.
The report comes as the IDF continues a major assault on the Hamas stronghold of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said on Tuesday that over the past few days, IDF forces had expanded their operations in Khan Yunis, in addition to “deepening achievements in northern Gaza.”
The battle in the city commenced on Sunday and was expected to last several days.
Senior Hamas figures, including Yahya Sinwar, are believed to be hiding in the vast tunnel network underneath Khan Yunis, where they are also believed to be hiding hostages.
Israeli forces operating in Khan Yunis earlier discovered a massive underground tunnel, in which the military said on Sunday that some 20 hostages were held at various times.