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Hostage talks show a battered Hamas is far from down and out

<span>Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA</span>
Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

When David Barnea, the director of the Mossad, met Qatari mediators on Tuesday for a new round of talks over further extensions to the current ceasefire with Hamas, he was indirectly negotiating with an organisation that, though battered, is far from down and out.

The stage of the conflict that followed the 7 October attacks by Hamas in Israel now appears to be coming to a close. Whether it is succeeded by a more durable ceasefire or by a new round of fighting, whatever comes now will be different.

The chances of the truce being extended much beyond 10 days appear slim, analysts say.

One reason is that both sides are running out of hostages or prisoners whom they can free relatively painlessly. The Palestinians released from Israeli jails so far are mainly women and children. So, too, are the hostages freed by Hamas in Gaza. In the brutal calculations of such things, neither category includes “high value” individuals. Among the hostages, these would include military personnel. Among the prisoners, it may mean high-profile political leaders, those accused of very serious crimes and others thought to endanger Israel’s security.

One possibility is that the current ceasefire could be extended to include elderly and sick people among the remaining 180 or so hostages and the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails. But that would postpone, not prevent, the coming trial of strength.

The 7 October attacks killed more than 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians in their homes or at a music festival. The military offensive by Israel that followed has killed as many as 15,000 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, too, and devastated swaths of the territory. That toll may increase.

Nour Odeh, an analyst and commentator based in Ramallah, said that phase 2 would not be a continuation of phase 1. “[This] is when we get into the hardball. The civilian hostages is one thing, but the soldiers is another. Hamas have said all along they want ‘all for all’ [all the hostages for all the prisoners in Israel] but I don’t think [Benjamin] Netanyahu will accept such a high price.”

She added: “The likelihood of a resumption of bombardment and also a ground offensive in the south [of Gaza] continues to loom large.”

To reconcile the apparently conflicting goals of freeing the hostages and “crushing” Hamas, Israeli officials and many analysts say military pressure is the only way to force the organisation to make concessions – despite the cost in civilian life and harm to Israel’s international reputation.

Prof Kobi Michael, of the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that the problem was “the way Hamas manipulates us and the way we respond to that manipulation. We still are not able to use the language that Hamas understands, and that is force. We have to resume the war and keep hitting Hamas,” he said.

Barnea, as head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, should be well briefed on what Hamas may concede and its goals. He should also be well aware of the splits between the organisation’s Gaza-based leaders and those overseas. Yahya Sinwar, the leader in Gaza, and Khaled Mashal, Hamas’s best known overseas leader, detest one another.

The Mossad head will also know that although Hamas has been badly battered by the Israeli offensive, losing many of its middle-ranking commanders and much hardware, it remains a functioning organisation capable of negotiating, organising complex hostage releases and running a relatively sophisticated PR operation.

Whether Sinwar was genuinely interested in the wellbeing of hostages is debatable, but he would have been well aware of the potential impact of reports of his visits to the captives that have been published in recent days in the Israeli media. Senior Israeli military officials have repeatedly described the Gaza Hamas leader as a “dead man walking” – yet here he was, not only alive but in command and control.

This will not help Israel in negotiations. Despite its vast military power, with a third of a million troops mobilised and state of the art weaponry, it is not necessarily in a position of strength.

“Hamas know Israel will act militarily and decisively in the coming months, but sees what it is doing as a generational effort that is much larger than what happens on the battlefield,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Hamas hopes that Israel hits so hard that it weakens Israel. Israel’s capabilities are practically infinite but Hamas sees … advantage from Israeli overreach, and that acts by Israel that are seen as repulsive by some others build sympathy towards Hamas and build antipathy towards Israel. So if you can absorb those hits, it’s to your own long-term advantage … Hamas is thinking about losing the battle but winning the war.”