Netanyahu laments ‘delusional' demands as Hamas freezes ceasefire talks

Hamas has suspended all Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal negotiations until humanitarian aid is brought into the northern part of the Strip.

 Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the PM's office in Jerusalem on February 17, 2024 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the PM's office in Jerusalem on February 17, 2024
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Hamas’s “delusional" demands are the sticking point in arriving at any deal to secure the release of the hostages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Saturday night as he explained that progress can occur only when the terror group softens its stance.

“Until this moment, until this very moment, Hamas’s demands are delusional,” Netanyahu said. “They mean only one thing: defeat for Israel. Of course, we will not agree to them. But when Hamas drops these delusional demands we can move forward.”

Hamas’s rigidity, he said, was the reason he decided not to send a second delegation to Cairo for talks last week under the auspices of CIA Director William Burns.

“This was a decision taken after we already went a long way in the negotiations and received nothing, but delusions demands from Hamas,” Netanyahu said.

There were “demands on the Temple Mount, demands to stop the war and keep Hamas in power [in Gaza], demands [for the IDF] to leave Gaza and release thousands of murderers,” Netanyahu said.

There was “no change,” the Prime Minister stressed. Despite this, he explained, he sent an initial delegation to Cairo for talks at the expressed request of US President Joe Biden to which “I responded.”

The delegation was directed to “sit and listen” and there was no change, not by an inch, by Hamas, Netanyahu said, adding that it was then fruitless for a second delegation to travel to Cairo.

“There is no point in going there until we see a change,” he said.

This is a negotiation, not a “give and give” situation, Netanyahu stated.

“The essence of our policy for the hostages's release is strong military pressure and very firm negotiations. This is how we have freed 112 captives so far and this is how we will continue to act until we release all of them. This negotiation requires a firm stand,” Netanyahu said.

In Israel on Saturday night relatives of the hostages and their supporters demonstrated calling on Netanyahu to make an immediate deal, warning that the hostages's lives were at risk every day they remained in Gaza.

The two Israeli hostages rescued by the IDF in Rafah last week urged Netanyahu to send Israeli officials to any future hostage talks.

"We cannot rescue all 134 hostages in heroic operations," Luis Har and Fernando Merman said in a statement with their family members who were freed in November’s hostage deal, Clara Merman and Gabriella and Mia Leimberg.

Hamas suspends ceasefire and hostage deal talks, demands aid to Gaza's north

Netanyahu’s firm stand came as Hamas suspended all Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal negotiations until humanitarian aid is brought into the northern part of the Strip, according to the Al Jazeera network which cited a leading source in the terror organization.

Humanitarian issues are the sticking point in the talks for a hostage deal which have not been promising in the last days, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Thani told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

“We still see some difficulties on the humanitarian part of these negotiations,” Thani said.

He described how the talks which his country and Egypt have been mediating had been progressing but then hit a snag in the last days. 

“We made some good progress in the last few weeks in the negotiations,” Thani said, but in the last days, the situation has “not been promising.”

He warned that “time is not in our favor” particularly in light of the upcoming Muslim holiday month of Ramadan which is “ahead of us,” combined with the potential of an Israeli army military operation in Gaza’s Rafah. 

The agreement has two elements, he said, the humanitarian one and the issue of how many captives would be freed.

“We believe that if we can reach an agreement on the humanitarian side of the agreement I do not think, the numbers will remain an obstacle, 

“If we are able to reach in the next few days some good conditions” on the humanitarian issue, “I believe that we can see a deal happening very soon.”

“If we are able to reach an agreement on the humanitarian side of the agreement I do not think, the numbers will remain an obstacle,” he said.

Biden spoke with Netanyahu late Thursday night about the snags in the hostage negotiations. The US has been heavily involved in the process from the start. Six of the remaining hostages are dual US-Israeli citizens.

The President spoke about that conversation and the hostages on Friday, explaining that it was his "hope and expectation" that a hostage deal would be reached and the American hostages would be brought home.” 

"The deal is being negotiated now and we're going to see where that takes us," Biden said. 

He also spoke with Netanyahu about the IDF’s pending military operation in Rafah, where over 1.3 million Palestinians have congregated, many of whom are civilians who sought shelter there from bombing in the north of the enclave.

In Washington on Friday, Biden sounded hopeful, yet not entirely confident that Netanyahu would not move forward with the Rafah operation.

"There has to be a temporary ceasefire to get the prisoners out, and that is underway," Biden said.

"I'm still hopeful that that can be done. And in the meantime, I don't anticipate - I'm hoping that the Israelis will not make any massive land invasion in the meantime. So it's my expectation that's not going to happen.”

The US has insisted that Israel must present a plan to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians in any such operation. Israel has pledged that it would present such a plan.

At a press conference with Israeli reporters on Saturday night Netanyahu said that an IDF military operation in Rafah is necessary to defeat Hamas irrespective of any hostage deal, as he pushed back against massive international pressure to hold off from such a move.

“There is no substitute for total victory and there is no other way to do it than eliminating the [Hamas] battalions in Rafah,” he said, adding “We will do it.”

“Everyone wants an additional deal for a [hostage] deal,” Netanyahu said, adding “I want one as well. It’s good if we achieve that, but even if we achieve it [a deal], we [the IDF] will enter Rafah.”

"Those who want to prevent us from operating in Rafah are basically telling us to "lose the war,” Netanyahu said.

The international community, including Egypt, which borders Rafah, has been concerned that a Rafah operation would force Palestinians to leave Gaza.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday that the displacement of Palestinians remained unacceptable.

"It is not our intention to provide any safe areas or facilities, but necessarily if this was a case we will deal with the humanity that is necessary," Shoukry said at the Munich Security Conference.

Reuters reported on Friday that Egypt was preparing an area at the Gaza border that could accommodate Palestinians in case an Israeli military offensive into Rafah prompts an exodus across the frontier. Sources described this as a contingency move.

Egypt has repeatedly denied making such preparations.

"This is very hypothetical. We have constantly been dealing with maintenance on our border so I think it is jumping to conclusions to what those activities constitute," Shoukry said of construction activity seen around the border.

Separately, the governor of North Sinai said on Saturday that the armed forces are establishing a logistics zone to receive aid for Gaza.

The area being established includes parking areas for trucks, warehouses, administrative offices, and accommodation for drivers, the governor said.

Reuters contributed to this report.