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Peace and Conflict

Hamas releases new hostage video | Update 19th December 2023

Hamas releases new hostage video via BICom

Hostages: Hamas released its latest video, showing proof of life of three older men: Chaim Peri, Amiram Cooper and Yoram Metzger.

  • The men appeared gaunt, with their beards cropped deliberately Islamic style and read off a Hamas prepared message pleading for their release.   
  • The video is the latest example of Hamas psychological warfare, with speculation that these three elderly men were chosen deliberately, to influence the next stage of a potential deal.  
  • Meanwhile in Poland, Mossad Director David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Al Thani, and CIA Director Burns met to discuss a potential new hostage deal.
  • Israeli media reports suggest that the gaps between Israeli and Hamas expectations are large, with Israel prepared to offer a brief pause in fighting after the release of hostages, and Hamas insisting that a longer ceasefire be effected before any hostages are freed.
  • A new deal is thought to be the most immediate priority of the Biden Administration, and Burns instructed accordingly. US eagerness stems from a desire to both see Israeli hostages return home, and for the fighting in the Gaza Strip to be reduced in intensity.
  • Israel insists that any pause in fighting would be followed immediately by a return to intensive operations in pursuit of its war aims. Israel also argues that any Hamas concessions on hostages are due largely to military achievements, and that further progress will yield more hostage releases in the future.
  • The sense of national shock and anger prompted by last Friday’s friendly fire deaths of three hostages is also thought to have persuaded the Israeli government that the time is ripe for a fresh hostage negotiation.
  • Israel’s negotiating position is thought to be:
    • All negotiations with Hamas will be conducted under fire and there is to be no pause in the fighting until hostages are freed.
    • Second, the deal will resume from the point it broke off, meaning all the women still being held hostage should be freed first.
    • Third, Israel is insisting that the terms for the release of each category of hostage be clear, after the women, then the elderly and ill men. 

US Secretary of Defence in Israel: Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Monday along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Brown.

  • They met Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defence Minister Gallant and Minister Gantz and focused on a range of issues, including the Gaza offensive, the Houthis’ attacks on Israel and on international shipping and the ongoing tensions between Israel and Lebanon. 
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu highlighted the commonality in all those threats, saying, “this is a battle against the Iranian axis, the Iranian axis of terror.”
  • Secretary Austin noted this is his fourth visit to Israel as Secretary of Defence and his second since October 7th.  He said, “I'm here to underscore what President Biden has said again and again: our commitment to Israel is unshakeable.“
  • Austin added, “America's commitment to Israel is unwavering and no individual, group or state should test our resolve.”
  • Austin announced, “in the Red Sea, we're leading a multinational maritime taskforce to uphold the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation. Iran's support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop. Now, we'll continue to provide Israel with the equipment that you need to defend your country… including critical munitions, tactical vehicles and air defence systems.”
  • He also added, “we must get more humanitarian assistance in to the nearly two million displaced people in Gaza and we must distribute that aid better.
  • Later, in their joint press conference Defence Minister Gallant said, “our common enemies around the world are watching. They know that Israel’s victory is the victory of the free world, led by the United States. Our war is against the Hamas terrorist organisation, not the people of Gaza. We are fighting a brutal enemy that hides behind civilians.”
  • Gallant continued, “billions of dollars have been invested in Gaza, money that should have gone to civilian infrastructure, and instead, was used to build a network of tunnels, hundreds of kilometres long, equipped with military facilities.”
  • Gallant added, “in northern Gaza our troops have eliminated thousands of terrorists, destroyed military infrastructure, and dismantled most of the battalions operating in the area.”
  • “In southern Gaza, In Khan Younis, we are precise and focused on eliminating Hamas leadership and military infrastructure.”
  • Regarding IDF conduct, Gallant said, “unlike our enemies, we are defending our values, and we operate according to international law. The IDF is operating to minimise harm to the civilian population. We are also working with international partners, to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Yet, anytime we discuss humanitarian issues, we must remember, the 129 hostages still held in Gaza. This is the most humanitarian issue.”

Gaza Strip: The IDF has today announced that Master Sgt. (res.) Daniel Yacov Ben Harosh, 31 and Cpt. (res.) Rotem Yosef Levy were killed fighting in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday. Yesterday, the deaths of seven other soldiers were announced, with the total casualties since the beginning of the ground operation now standing at 131.

  • Fighting continues throughout the Strip, with Israel saying it has now taken full control of Beit Hanoun in the north, and made key advances in Shajaiya.
  • In Beit Hanoun, “many terrorists” were eliminated, and weapons depots, rocket launchers, underground command centres, and “significant” tunnels destroyed.
  • The IDF also discovered the Beit Hanoun battalion’s main tunnel, which it says was sited deep within civilian infrastructure, including the city hall, a mosque, a football court, and a daycare centre.
  • The opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing to aid has already resulted in a significant increase in total aid arriving into the Strip. 200 trucks arrived on Sunday, the first time that total has been reached since the start of the war.

The north: Hezbollah continues its attacks across the northern border. On Monday a rocket landed in an open area inside the town of Kiryat Shmona. Israel has continued the retaliation.   

  • Three rockets fired towards Israel from Syria fell in open areas in the Golan Heights. Israel fired on the source in response, as well as at a Syrian military position.

Context: The visit of US Secretary of Defence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff further underscores the close coordination between Israel and the US.

  • Austin also noted his visit included the opportunity for the head of the US army General Brown and the head of the Israeli army General Halevi to discuss, “the most sensitive issues on the agenda, in full transparency and trust.”
  • All the shared threats are orchestrated by Iran. The US and Israel remain highly concerned over Iran’s continued uranium enrichment. The prospect of Iran reaching the nuclear threshold would have a profound influence over Israel’s military decision making.     
  • Whilst Hezbollah continues its attacks in the north, Israel is hoping that US diplomatic efforts bear fruit in negotiations with the Lebanese to remove Hezbollah forces from the border area. Gallant told Austin, “if such a process will not be implemented diplomatically, we will not hesitate to act.”
  • According to Channel 12 News, a small Foreign Ministry team has, at the request of Foreign Minister Cohen, drafted a secret policy document for the National Security Council that will be presented to the security cabinet in the future. The document deals with both security and civilian recommendations for Gaza. On security:
    • The IDF will retain full freedom of action.
    • The Gaza Strip will be fully demilitarised and action will be taken to prevent any military build-up.
    • A buffer zone will be established.
    • A mechanism will be created to prevent smuggling along the Egyptian border (Philadelphia corridor) and to allow oversight of the Rafah crossing into Egypt.  
    • Israel will maintain the maritime security zone.  
  • On the civilian front:
    • An international mechanism will be formed to provide humanitarian aid.
    • Managing everyday life will be an integrated combination including:
      • Key international partners.
      • International organisations that already operate in Gaza.
      • Local elements not identified with Hamas.
  • Whilst this plan does not specifically mention the Palestinian Authority (PA), the final point could include them. This would appeal to the US and the international community who have explicitly called for the PA to be engaged, along with Saudi Arabia (considered the other key international partner cited above).
  • However, Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out a role for the PA.

Looking ahead: There is hope that with head of the CIA Burns invested in the hostage negotiations, he is best placed to put pressure on Qatar that can in turn influence Hamas.

  • When asked about timeline at the press conference Austin said, I’m not here to dictate timelines or terms,” nevertheless the speculation in Israel suggests the US expects Israel to wrap up the ground offensive by the end of January.  

via BICom