A hostage negotiator in talks with Hamas leaders has claimed the tone of conversations over the release of kidnapped Israelis has shifted in recent days amid growing calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Gershon Baskin helped secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 after he was held by Hamas for five years.
Mr Baskin, who is an independent negotiator who has kept backchannels with Hamas for 15 years, began communications with senior leaders in the UK-proscribed terrorist group after its surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, he told i.
But while Hamas initially demanded a prisoner exchange following its massacre of more than 1,400 people, one leader was now asking if a ceasefire was possible in return for the release of Israeli hostages, he claimed.
“Last night, I was asked if I think a deal is possible whereas a week ago they completely rejected negotiating and said they wouldn’t negotiate until the full cessation of Israeli aggression against Gaza,” Mr Baskin said.
“The tone was a little bit different. The person I’m talking to, who was the primary interlocutor of mine throughout the Shalit negotiations and in the past 15 years, sounds worried – although he won’t admit it.”
The negotiator has warned that the Israeli Government still views the rescue of hostages as secondary to its military objectives in invading Gaza.
It comes as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed that six Britons were among those killed by Hamas, while a number are also feared to be among those taken hostage by the militant group and held in Gaza.
Mr Baskin said that while his contact told him “we will fight ’till the end”, he also asked “if [Baskin] thought that some kind of deal was possible – he asked if a ceasefire was possible”.
“I told him that if there’s a deal for women, children, elderly and sick, that there could be a 24 to 48 hour ceasefire to enable it and enable humanitarian aid to get in,” Mr Baskin, who is also a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, said.
“I keep appealing to the Hamas people two things. One, it’s against Islam, to take hostages who are women, children, elderly and sick. And secondly, they need to do the right thing. And the right thing is to free them.”
On Monday, Israel’s military updated the number of people it believes are being held hostage in Gaza from 155 to 199.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry later said Hamas was potentially ready to release the nearly 200 hostages if Israel stopped its campaign of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
But the militant group has not acknowledged making such an offer, and Mr Baskin said the window of opportunity to release the hostages is “very small, and is going to close soon”.
“The primary objective [of the Israeli government] is to bring down Hamas, the secondary objective is to rescue the hostages. They would like to get anyone out that they can,” he said.
Asked if that indicated the Israeli government was willing to sacrifice the hostages in return for the success of the military operation, he added: “I don’t think any of them would ever say it in those words, but my assessment is yes.”
Unlike with Mr Shalit, the number of hostages seized by Hamas during last week’s attack meant the captives were likely to be spread around the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Those guarding the hostages were unlikely to be elite, disciplined fighters and may desert their posts under the threat of the invading Israeli army, Mr Baskin believes.
Mr Baskin said official talks aimed at releasing the hostages appeared to be “a mess” and needed to be streamlined to ensure direct negotiations between Israel, Hamas and the Qatar, where militant leaders are based.
“It’s not really clear who’s making the decisions here [for Hamas] and who’s in power, how much decision making power they have over in Doha in their five star hotels or how much in the bunkers of Gaza,” he added.
The brutality of Hamas’s murderous rampage put it on a par with Isis, he said, but the Israeli government bore responsibility for the conditions in Gaza, he added.
“If you thought you could go on holding millions of people under occupation, and people in Gaza in a cage and everything would be fine, then the Israeli side are really, really stupid,” he said.
But he warned a Hamas contact that the full ceasefire they wanted was not going happen and that “their days are numbered”.
“The Israeli slogan that we’re going to bring down Hamas – which was a slogan for 18 years – is now real.”