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How Israel can ensure return of hostages, according to ex-Mossad chief

Israel will only be able to secure the return of hostages if it moves to install a new Palestinian regime in Gaza, says the former head of Mossad’s hostages and missing-in-action division.

“Israel will have to create a solution that will include a Palestinian entity in the Gaza strip,” said Rami Igra during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

“We have no other solution … to go over this impasse and bring back some of the hostages, if not all of them, and to change Israel’s position in the world and change how we are looked upon.”

Israel believes that Hamas and other militant groups are holding about 125 hostages captured during the deadly raids of 7 October, while dozens are believed to have died in captivity. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said it recovered four bodies from Gaza last week.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has ruled out allowing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to replace Hamas in Gaza – despite support for such a move from foreign allies, including the US. The PA has limited governing powers in the occupied West Bank.

Senior Israeli officials, including the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, and IDF chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, have also pressed for the creation of a Palestinian-led government in Gaza. Mr Gallant said the only alternatives would be Hamas rule or a permanent Israeli occupation.

Mr Igra, who led negotiations over hostages with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other militant groups at the intelligence agency, has suggested that a comprehensive agreement to replace Hamas and end the war could see the hostages come home.

But he also claimed that Hamas has scuppered talks over a prisoner exchange deal by insisting that it stays in power.

“Hamas from the beginning has been adamant on one demand … the return of sovereignty in Gaza to Hamas,” he said. “The negotiation team cannot cannot square the circle when at the end of the day they come up against the same impasse. There is nothing we can negotiate.”

Mr Igra said Israel’s current government is too rigidly ideological to agree to Palestinian leadership in Gaza, citing the influence of its far-right contingent, which includes national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has advocated a permanent occupation.

“The Israeli government is being held today, I would say, by ultra-right ideological groups who see Israel in biblical terms and not in modern political terms,” the intelligence chief said. “This is why we have this impasse.”

Hamas officials have indicated openness to a postwar formula involving other Palestinian factions sharing power in Gaza. But Mr Igra believes that the group is hardening its stance in response to the pressure Israel is facing to deliver a deal, both from foreign governments and international courts over its conduct in Gaza and a growing protest movement inside Israel.

The former Mossad official said that if forced to choose between the lives of hostages and continuing the fight against Hamas, the government “should be bold enough, straight enough and truthful enough to cut to come to the hostage families and say there is a red line at the end of the day, we have to look at the nine million other citizens that live here”.

Mr Igra also addressed a controversy over a November interview with CNN when he said “the non-combatant population in the Gaza Strip is really a non-existent term because all of the Gazans voted for Hamas”.

The former official said he did not mean that none of the population of Gaza should be considered civilians, but “we have to realise that we are not dealing with a friendly population”.

Elections have not been held in Gaza or the West Bank since 2006. According to a recent poll by a Palestinian research centre, 38 per cent of Gazans supported Hamas in September 2023, rising to 42 per cent in December 2023, before dropping to 34 per cent in March.

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