Leaders of 18 countries urge Hamas to release hostages held in Gaza

<span>Friends and supporters of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin protest outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem.</span><span>Photograph: Debbie Hill/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Friends and supporters of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin protest outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem.Photograph: Debbie Hill/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

The leaders of 18 countries including the US and the UK have called on Hamas to free Israeli and dual-national hostages held in Gaza.

“The fate of the hostages and the civilian population in Gaza, who are protected under international law, is of international concern,” they said. “We strongly support the ongoing mediation efforts in order to bring our people home.”

Hamas and other militant groups took 250 people hostage on 7 October as they overran towns and kibbutzim next to Gaza, killing an estimated 1,136 people. After intensive negotiations mediated by Qatar and Egypt, 105 were released as part of a hostage deal last November in exchange for a pause in fighting.

The call to free the hostages followed intensifying Israeli airstrikes on the southernmost city of Rafah, as well as on Khan Younis. Palestinian medics reported that the strikes in Rafah had killed six people, including a journalist, amid fears of an impending Israeli ground assault.

Israeli officials including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have claimed that military force, including a planned invasion of Rafah, will allow Israel to defeat Hamas militants and bring hostages home.

A senior member of Hamas’s politburo, Khalil al-Hayya, told the Associated Press on Thursday that the group was willing to agree to a five-year ceasefire with Israel and dissolve its military wing with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along borders established before 1967.

It is not clear that the proposal enjoys the backing of Hamas’s military wing, which has long called the shots in Gaza, and in any case it is unlikely Israel would consider such a scenario. It has vowed to crush Hamas after the 7 October attacks, and the country’s leadership is adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state on lands Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Over the years, Hamas has sometimes moderated its public position with respect to the possibility of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But its political programme still officially “rejects any alternative to the full liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea” – referring to the area reaching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which includes lands that now make up Israel.

The families of Israeli hostages held in Gaza have put renewed pressure on Netanyahu to restart negotiations for a temporary ceasefire in exchange for the release of their loved ones.

After the release by Hamas on Wednesday of a hostage video of an Israeli-American citizen, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, there were clashes outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home, where demonstrators lit fires, set off fireworks and swarmed the car of the far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Speaking under duress in the proof-of-life video posted on Hamas’s Telegram account, Goldberg-Polin accused Israel’s government of abandoning the people being held hostage by Hamas and claimed that 70 captives had been killed in Israel’s bombing campaign.

R Adm Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), described the video as “an urgent call for action”, adding that “until Hamas releases our hostages the IDF will continue to pursue Hamas everywhere in Gaza”.

Dalia Cusnir, whose husband’s brothers are being held in Gaza, said she feared Israeli officials had not acted quickly enough to secure the release of the remaining hostages, following reports – including some from Hamas – that large numbers of those who were held are no longer alive. “It feels from outside that they’re not making every effort,” she said of the Israeli government.

Israel’s war cabinet convened on Thursday to discuss plans to restart talks as well as the potential ground invasion of Rafah. A government spokesperson declined to say when or whether the classified forum might give a green light for a ground operation in Rafah. An estimated 1 million people are seeking shelter in the city after Israeli bombardments levelled other urban centres in Gaza.

A senior Israeli defence official said on Wednesday that Israel was poised to evacuate civilians before its attack on Rafah and had bought 40,000 tents that could house 10-12 people each. Satellite images of Al-Mawasi, between Rafah, Khan Younis and the sea, showed significant camp settlements erected over the past two weeks.

Recent talks to facilitate a second pause in fighting in exchange for the release of 40 hostages, including women and elderly and sick people, all but collapsed over Hamas’s demands for the permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza as well as the return of Palestinians to the north of the territory.

The 18 leaders said in their joint statement: “We emphasise that the deal on the table to release the hostages would bring an immediate and prolonged ceasefire in Gaza, that would facilitate a surge of additional necessary humanitarian assistance to be delivered throughout Gaza, and lead to the credible end of hostilities.”

A senior US administration official said on Thursday that Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, who is seen as the mastermind behind the plan to seize captives on 7 October, “has made the decision he’d rather hold [the hostages] rather than securing a ceasefire”.

“There’s a deal on the table. It meets nearly all of the demands that Hamas had,” the official added. “What they need to do is release the vulnerable category of hostages to get things moving.”

Gershon Baskin, the Middle East director of the International Communities Organisation and a former Israeli negotiator for the prisoner exchange deal that freed the IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas for five years, said: “Israel calls Hamas’s demands delusional and they are not – it makes perfect sense from the point of view of anyone in Gaza. Netanyahu has an interest in prolonging the war. [Hamas’s] biggest bargaining card is the 136 hostages, and they’re not going to give them up for anything less than ending the war.”

Qatari mediators recently said they were reconsidering their role in the talks, in an unusual public rebuke expressing “deep frustration” with statements from Israeli officials. Israeli mediators went into negotiations in Doha and Cairo in recent months hamstrung, said Baskin, with a strict brief that allowed for little flexibility and limited progress.

The former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy said freeing the hostages was “clearly not the priority” of Netanyahu and his cabinet.

The newspaper Haaretz reported that one proposal under discussion by Israeli officials in Tel Aviv was an agreement that would result in all the hostages being released, including men and those of military age, in exchange for a mass release of Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas said in a statement that it had “offered flexibility” during the talks but blamed a lack of progress on “the intransigence and procrastination of Netanyahu and his government”. Demands for a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza remained the same, the group said.