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Hamas believes the scores of hostages it took during an attack on Israel give it enough leverage to free all Palestinians currently in Israeli jails, the group's officials said amid a multilateral effort to secure their release as its war with Israel intensifies.
Militants from Hamas took scores of hostages after rampaging through southern Israeli communities and military bases on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people. Israel's military has said Hamas is holding 199 hostages in Gaza while the Palestinian group's armed wing, the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, claimed they are holding between 200 and 250.
“The hostage situation is very important for us. The world wants to talk about Israeli hostages; from our side, we have 300 child prisoners in Israel, we have 60 women who are political prisoners, and thousands of our young men as well,” Osama Hamdan, the Palestinian group's representative in Lebanon, told The National.
Mr Hamdan said that the Israeli hostages – both civilian and military – would remain a bargaining chip for the release of Palestinians jailed by Israel.
“Any talks about the Israeli soldiers have to begin with a discussion about the freedom of those Palestinians first,” he said.
Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades said about 22 of the hostages were killed in Israel's bombardment of Gaza, which has caused more than 2,800 deaths in the blockaded territory.
Attempts to negotiate the release of the hostages by countries with ties to Hamas, such as Qatar and Turkey, have had no success so far.
The Israeli military and Hamas held each other responsible for the welfare of the captives.
“We hold Hamas completely responsible for the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. Any deaths or harm is on them not us,” Lt Col Avichay Adraee, who heads the Israeli military's Arab media division, told The National.
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said in a television interview on Monday that the group “has what it needs” to free all Palestinians in Israeli jails.
“Israel is speculating about the number of hostages and the resistance has enough to exchange and release our own prisoners in Israeli jails. We also are making sure that Israeli military hostages are treated differently from civilians and foreigners,” Mr Meshaal said in the interview with Al Araby TV.
The Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades said after his remarks that non-Israeli hostages were being “treated as guests” who would be released when the security situation on the ground improved.
“We are holding a group of detainees of different nationalities, these are our guests and we seek to protect them. We will release detainees of different nationalities when circumstances on the ground allow,” spokesman Abu Obeida said.
The foreign captives are believed to include Israelis who also hold citizenship of other countries, including the US, and citizens of countries including Thailand and Germany.
Sources from Qatar’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that they had begun talks with Hamas and relayed the group's conditions to their US counterparts to pass on to Israel.
Qatar, which hosts Hamas's top political leaders, tried to negotiate a deal for the exchange of captured Israeli women and children for Palestinian ones in Israeli jails.
“From our side, we’ve passed on that offer during the past week, but Israel has so far not entertained that exchange at all,” a diplomatic source from Qatar told The National.
Qatar is in a position to negotiate with Hamas but faces difficulty speaking with Israel as they have not formally established ties. Doha recently negotiated the release of three Ukrainian children who had been taken to Russia under a mechanism it set up for similar future releases.
A source from Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said officials hope to “bank on their success of Russia and Ukraine” in playing a larger role between Israel and Hamas.
Turkey, another ally of Hamas, is also making efforts to mediate a deal between the group and Israel. Turkey and Israel re-established formal ties last August after years of tensions.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed his government was “working intensively” with all parties for the release of captives but also hit out at “western provocations” that have hindered Ankara’s efforts.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh discussed the release of civilian hostages in a phone call on Monday.
The mediating roles of both Turkey and Qatar will play a major role as both Israel and Hamas have outright rejected any direct talks, especially over the hostages.
Israeli sources said the military had decided not to make public its efforts regarding the captives, choosing instead to focus on the war in Gaza while holding Hamas responsible for their well-being.
Israel and Hamas last exchanged prisoners in 2011 when Israel swapped hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to win the release of one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was held for five years.