Hamas says it does not have 40 Israeli hostages to trade in cease-fire deal

Hamas has told negotiators it does not have 40 Israeli hostages that it can release as part of a temporary cease-fire deal with Israel, a source familiar with the talks confirmed to The Hill.

The admission raises questions over how many of the remaining hostages kidnapped Oct. 7 are alive and who is holding them. Israel says 133 hostages out of more than 240 abducted that day — mostly Israelis and dual nationals — have yet to be released.

The Biden administration is pushing a plan to have Israel and Hamas agree to a six to eight week cease-fire that is contingent on Hamas releasing hostages, a group that includes older men, civilians and both male and female Israeli soldiers who have been held for 187 days.

CNN reported on Hamas’s update to negotiators earlier Wednesday. The Israeli prime minister’s office told CNN that of the 129 hostages from Oct. 7, at least 33 are dead.

CIA Director Bill Burns had reportedly proposed that Hamas agree to release 40 hostages in exchange for Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners from Israel jails during a first phase of a three-phase deal.

President Biden, expressing rising frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, has told the Israeli leader to “empower” his negotiators to reach a deal.

Talks are ongoing in Cairo, with Egypt and Qatar serving as mediators with Hamas’s leadership, who are hiding out in the Gaza Strip.

Bassem Naeem, Hamas’s director of international relations, told The Hill that he had no information on the number of hostages that Hamas is holding, but said that “the movement is preparing its response to the new proposal.”

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, is passed the proposals through secret channels and then sends back a response, a procedure that is time-consuming and tedious. The timing for a response is believed to take a few days, Naeem said.

The U.S. wants to see a deal to secure the release of hostages, but to also allow for a scale up of humanitarian aid delivery in the Gaza Strip. Biden has stood by Israel’s right to target Hamas to eliminate the threat it would repeat its Oct. 7 attack.

But the administration, while placing blame on Hamas for triggering Israel’s military response in Gaza, has nonetheless increased its public criticism of Israel for failing to do enough to protect civilian life and the lives of humanitarian workers.

An Israeli strike killing seven aid workers with the nongovernmental organization World Central Kitchen has dramatically shifted Biden’s tone against Netanyahu.

But it’s unclear how Hamas’s inability to release the hostages it kidnapped — whether they are alive or dead — will impact the negotiations. Hamas has claimed that Israeli airstrikes have killed some of the hostages. Other military groups in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and even Palestinian civilians are thought to be holding, or have held, hostages.

Hamas has not provided Israel with a comprehensive list of the people it kidnapped on Oct 7 during its surprise assault on Israel, where about 1,200 people were killed.

Hamas also has the bodies of two Israeli soldiers it captured during a war with Israel in 2014 and two Israeli civilians who crossed into Gaza during that time.

A week-long cease-fire deal reached in November saw the release of more than 100 people held by Hamas, including Israeli women and children and foreign nationals.

Updated at 11:57 a.m.

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