Netanyahu Says War Will Continue as Gaza Hostage Deal Nears

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli Cabinet that the war to eliminate Hamas wouldn’t let up after a cease-fire, even as he signaled that a deal was near to free hostages in Gaza in return for a temporary pause in fighting.

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“There is nonsense out there as if after the pause in fighting, we will stop the war,” Netanyahu said at the start of a meeting where officials set to vote on a hostage deal, according to his office. “We are at war and we will continue it until we achieve all the objectives. We will eliminate Hamas, return all the hostages and guarantee that there will be no element in Gaza that threatens Israel.”

The remarks were the clearest signal yet that even as Hamas and Israel appeared to be on the cusp of an agreement to release dozens of hostages, the Israeli government wouldn’t accede to growing international pressure for a longer-term cease-fire to the war that began Oct. 7.

Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh earlier indicated the hostage negotiations were moving forward, following similar comments from US President Joe Biden. “The movement delivered its response to the brothers in Qatar and the mediators, and we are close to reaching a truce agreement,” Haniyeh, who’s based in Qatar’s capital Doha, said in a statement on Telegram.

Biden said Tuesday a deal is “very close” and the chances of it being completed are “very good.”

The contours of the deal have emerged in recent days as officials on all sides hinted a major agreement was in the works. An Israeli official told local media that 50 women and children held hostage in Gaza would be released during a four-day pause in the fighting, Ma’ariv reported. All of those released would be Israeli citizens, the news website said.

Israel will be willing to continue the pause in fighting for additional days in exchange for 10 more hostages per day, meaning the total number of released hostages may reach 70 or 80, it said. The releases are expected to begin on Thursday or Friday, Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, reported. It said Israel will release three female or teenage prisoners for every hostage freed.

“When we have more to say, we will, but things are looking good for the moment,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

Qatar is helping broker the talks between Israel and Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said the negotiations are at a critical stage.

The sides are the closest they have been to a hostage deal since the war started, a US official said. Talks have fallen through in the past, however, and there’s no guarantee of success.

The developments come as international pressure grows on Israel to end its more than six-week retaliatory offensive in Gaza, which authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say has killed more than 14,000 people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. The government media office said 6,800 people are reported missing or trapped under the rubble. Israel has said the Hamas attacks killed more than 1,200 people.

In the meantine, Israeli forces have been engaged in intense fighting with Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip even as the hostage talks have progressed. The main thrust of Israel’s ground offensive is into Gaza City, which the military describes as Hamas’s “center of gravity.”

Troops have taken control of many parts of the city’s Al Shifa hospital and over the weekend showed videos they say prove Hamas exploited the facility, building a command center and tunnels underneath.

While Israel has concentrated its air strikes and ground assault on northern Gaza, it is now turning its attention to the south, signaling the possibility of sending troops there. Israel has urged civilians to evacuate to southern Gaza since the beginning of the war.

The United Nations says the humanitarian situation in the densely packed Gaza Strip is dire and that its roughly 2 million inhabitants need much more food and medicine. Fears also remain of the war growing into a wider Middle East conflict as exchanges of fire along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon continue daily.

Israeli warplanes on Tuesday struck targets inside Lebanese territory after Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters shot mortar shells at a military post, Israel’s army said. Three civilians including two journalists died in the Israeli bombing, the Lebanese state-run National News Agency reported.

--With assistance from Michael Heath, Gwen Ackerman, Omar Tamo, Jennifer Jacobs and Jordan Fabian.

(Adds Biden comments in fourth paragraph)

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