Report of Israeli hostage family's deaths overshadows Gaza truce talks

Hamas' military wing says a 10-month-old baby, along with his four-year-old brother and their mother, died in an earlier Israeli bombing

Nidal al-MughrabiMohammed Salem and Emily RoseReuters
Published : 29 Nov 2023, 03:44 AM
Updated : 29 Nov 2023, 03:44 AM

Negotiations between Israel and Hamas to extend the Gaza truce were overshadowed at the last minute on Wednesday by an unconfirmed claim by Hamas that a family of Israeli hostages including a 10-month old baby had been killed.

Shortly before the final release of women and children hostages scheduled under the truce, the military wing of Hamas said the youngest hostage, baby Kfir Bibas, had been killed in an earlier Israeli bombing, along with his four-year-old brother Ariel and their mother. Their father, who has also been held, was not mentioned in the statement.

Israeli officials said they were checking the Hamas claim, a highly emotive issue in Israel where the family is among the highest-profile civilian hostages yet to be freed.

  • UN chief says Gaza in midst of 'epic humanitarian catastrophe'

  • IDF says it seeks to comfort Bibas family over deaths report

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), said the military was also seeking to clarify the situation.

"We have engaged with the family, met with the family, are comforting the family because of this tragic announcement that was made to the family, making it even more difficult times for them," he told MSNBC.

Relatives had issued a special appeal for the family's freedom after the children and their parents were excluded from the penultimate group freed on Tuesday.

An Israeli official said it would be impossible to extend the ceasefire, due to lapse on Thursday morning, without a commitment to release all women and children among the hostages. The official said Israel believed militants were still holding enough women and children to prolong the truce by 2-3 days.

Egyptian security sources also said negotiators believed a two-day extension was possible.

LISTS OF NAMES

Families of those Israeli hostages due to be released later on Wednesday had already been informed earlier of their names, the final group to be freed under the truce unless negotiators succeeded in extending it. Officials did not say at the time whether that included the Bibas family.

Gaza's Hamas rulers published a list of 15 women and 15 teenage Palestinians to be released from Israeli jails in return for the hostages released on Wednesday. The hostages were seized by militants in their deadly raid on Israel on Oct 7.

For the first time since the truce began, the list of Palestinians to be freed included Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied territory.

So far Gaza militants have freed 60 Israeli women and children from among 240 hostages, under the deal that secured the war's first truce. Twenty-one foreigners, mainly Thai farmworkers, were also freed under separate parallel deals. In return, Israel has released 180 Palestinian security detainees, all women and teenagers.

The initial four-day truce was extended by 48 hours from Tuesday, and Israel says it would be willing to prolong it for as long as Hamas frees 10 hostages a day. But with fewer women and children held, that could mean agreeing to terms governing the release of at least some Israeli men for the first time.

A Palestinian official said negotiators were hammering out whether Israeli men would be released on different terms than the exchange for three Palestinian detainees each that had previously applied to the women and children.

Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Israel would consider any serious proposal.

"We are doing everything we can in order to get those hostages out. Nothing is confirmed until it is confirmed," Levy told reporters. "We're talking about very sensitive negotiations in which human lives hang in the balance."

'INTENSE NEGOTIATIONS'

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday the Gaza Strip was in the midst of an "epic humanitarian catastrophe" and urged the world not to look away.

"Intense negotiations are taking place to prolong the truce – which we strongly welcome - but we believe we need a true humanitarian ceasefire," he told the UN Security Council.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated earlier pledges to pursue the war to destroy Hamas, once the ceasefire lapses.

"There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end. This is my policy, the entire cabinet stands behind it, the entire government stands behind it, the soldiers stand behind it, the people stand behind it - this is exactly what we will do," Netanyahu said in a statement.

Tuesday's release also included for the first time hostages held by Islamic Jihad, a separate militant group, as well as by Hamas itself.

The truce has brought the first respite to a war launched by Israel to annihilate Hamas after the "Black Shabbat" raid by gunmen who killed 1,200 people on the Jewish rest day, according to Israel's tally.

Israeli bombardment has since reduced much of Gaza to a wasteland, with more than 15,000 people confirmed killed, 40% of them children, according to Palestinian health authorities deemed reliable by the United Nations.

Many more are feared buried in the ruins. The Palestinian health ministry said another 160 bodies were removed from rubble in the past 24 hours, and some 6,500 people were still missing.

On Tuesday, mediator Qatar hosted the spy chiefs from Israel's Mossad and the US CIA.

The officials discussed possible parameters of a new phase of the truce deal including Hamas releasing hostages who are Israeli men or soldiers, a source briefed on the matter said. They also considered what might be needed to reach a ceasefire lasting more than a handful of days.

Qatar spoke to Hamas before the meeting to get a sense of what the group might agree to, and the opposing sides are now internally discussing the ideas explored at the meeting, the source said.

There was no immediate word on whether the final group to be freed on Wednesday would include the youngest hostage, 10-month-old baby Kfir Bibas, held along with his four-year-old brother and their parents. Relatives had come forward with a special plea after they were omitted from the penultimate group freed on Tuesday.

The truce has held throughout the six days despite reports from both sides of comparatively small-scale violations, though both say they are prepared for war to resume with full intensity the moment it lapses.

A spokesperson for Israel's military said the truce was still holding on Wednesday. Palestinians accused Israeli forces of firing at homes near the beach in Khan Younis from the sea, and of shooting in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.