(JTA) — Hamas delivered a long-awaited response to an Israeli proposal for a hostage deal on Tuesday, eliciting cautious optimism from some involved in negotiations even as Israeli officials dimmed hopes about how many hostages could ultimately return alive.
Israel has not responded officially to the counterproposal, which reportedly lays out a 135-day path for the release of all Israeli hostages held in Gaza. An end to the war would be required for the hostages’ complete release, but some would be released in earlier stages if Israel makes various concessions including pulling out of occupied areas in Gaza and releasing Palestinian security prisoners, including some serving life sentences, according to reports about the counterproposal.
The counterproposal comes more than a week after Qatari and U.S. negotiators delivered an Israeli offer that would suspend fighting but not end the war, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again this week vowed not to do until Hamas’ leaders are all killed.
U.S. President Joe Biden called Hamas’ proposal “a little over the top” but said negotiations would continue. Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatari officials, who have represented Hamas in the talks, said they were optimistic.
The counterproposal also comes as Israeli officials disclosed that more of the 136 known hostages may be dead than previously disclosed. Over time, Israel has announced the names of dozens of Israelis whose bodies it believes are being held in Gaza, most killed on Oct. 7 when Hamas launched the attack that triggered the current war. Now, it says intelligence suggests that perhaps 20 others are dead as well.
Israeli officials offered no details about which hostages are feared but not confirmed dead. Hamas has produced no sign of life for most hostages, some of whom were gravely injured on Oct. 7 and all of whom have spent more than 120 days in captivity in harsh conditions.
The terror group also said in late November that three hostages from the Bibas family — mother Shiri and sons Ariel, 4, and Kfir, 1 — had been killed. Israel has neither confirmed nor refuted the account. The boys were the only children not released during a 10-day ceasefire in which more than 100 hostages were released.
The announcement and continued hostage talks come at a tense time, as families of hostages ramp up pressure on the Israeli government to bring them home and Israeli leaders under increasing pressure to curb the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. Hamas says more than 27,000 Gazans have died in the war; Israel has said it believes that two-thirds of those killed have been civilians.
The number of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza rose to 227 on Wednesday after a solider died from a fungal infection after being seriously injured there.