Israel would consider another short-term cease-fire if an agreement can be reached with Hamas to return more of its 137 hostages still in captivity.
Securing the release of all those seized by Hamas and other armed groups on Oct. 7 remains an aim of the war alongside destroying the Islamist militant group, Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, said on Tuesday.
“A temporary pause to get them out” would be considered, he told the Jerusalem Press Club.
During the seven-day cease-fire that ended Dec. 1, Hamas returned 110 of the more than 240 people taken when its militants swarmed out of Gaza and killed about 1,200 people. In exchange, about three times as many Palestinian prisoners were released by Israel.
The cease-fire came to end, Israel said, when Hamas reneged on an agreement to return all women and children. Hamas, which is classified as a terror group by the U.S. and European Union, still holds 20 women, two boys and 115 men, Israel has said. It’s unclear if all of them are alive.
Qatar — which helped broker the last halt to fighting — said it’s working to secure a fresh pause. That shouldn’t be seen as a “an alternative to a permanent cease-fire,” Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said in Doha.
Levy also defended Israel’s record in protecting civilians, as criticism mounts over its air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, in which almost 16,000 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The military is giving advance warnings of strikes, conceding the element of surprise, he said.
“It’s upsetting that our attempts to protect civilians are mocked or discarded,” he said. “We would like to seek greater appreciation for the efforts Israel is making to protect civilians.”
While the Israeli air force continues to play a key role in the war as the military moves its focus to the south of Gaza, the next phase of the conflict will be characterized by “close-quarter fighting” with Hamas battalions, he said.
Levy appeared to confirm government plans that Hamas leaders would be targeted for assassination wherever they are, including in Qatar and Turkey.
“Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man walking,” Levy said. “We will go to the ends of the Earth to bring to justice people who want to perpetrate genocidal violence against the Jewish people.”
(—With assistance from Dana Khraiche)
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