Families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas have clashed with far-right Israeli politicians who want to bring in the death penalty as a possible sentence for captured Palestinian militants.
The families said on Monday that even talk of doing so might endanger the lives of their relatives. The row underlines the deep divisions in Israel over how to deal with the hostage crisis.
Reports have suggested that Israel and Hamas are edging towards a deal that would bring the release of a significant number of the more than 240 people seized by the extremist Islamist organisation during their attack in Israel last month, possibly in return for a limited ceasefire and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
The US president, Joe Biden, said on Monday he believed a deal was near to secure the release of some of the hostages being held by Hamas, telling reporters: “I believe so,” when asked at the White House about a possible agreement.
Israeli officials have sent mixed messages, repeatedly denying suggestions by senior US and Israeli officials, as well as the Qatari prime minister, that an agreement was close, but also hinting that progress was being made.
“I beg you not to capitalise on our suffering now … when the lives of our loved ones are at stake, when the sword is at their necks,” Gil Dickmann, whose cousin is a hostage, told Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, according to Haaretz.
Yarden Gonen, whose sister Romi is among the hostages, told Ben-Gvir and his far-right party colleagues during a parliamentary panel that the proposal to introduce potential capital sentences for convicted militants would mean “playing along with [the] mind games” of Hamas.
“And in return we would get pictures of our loved ones murdered, ended, with the state of Israel and not them [Hamas] being blamed for it …. Don’t pursue this until after they are back here,” she said. “Don’t put my sister’s blood on your hands.”
When confronted by relatives of the hostages opposing such a change, far-right politicians shouted that they did not have “a monopoly of pain” in comments that appalled many Israelis.
As many as 300 Hamas militants are being held by Israel, military officials have said. Some were involved in the bloody attacks last month, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians in their homes or at a dance party.
The Qatari prime minister on Sunday said that only minor differences between Hamas and Israel remained to be resolved, but the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said no deal had been reached.
Netanyahu is under domestic pressure to free the hostages. The challenge of doing this while completing the goal of eliminating Hamas as a military force capable of striking Israel again has led to disagreements among Israeli policymakers and the security establishment, as well as society more broadly.
Senior military officers say the two objectives can be reconciled as military pressure on Hamas would lead to concessions over hostages. It is not clear that all Israeli cabinet ministers agree.
Israeli media have reported divisions among senior ministers, with some favouring accepting the deal reportedly tabled by Qatar before international pressure or rising military casualties weaken Israel’s bargaining position. Others argue that Israel should hold out for better terms and that to accept those on offer would set a precedent for future negotiations to obtain the freedom of any remaining hostages.
US officials said a hostage deal appeared to be close, but also pointed out that it has appeared close for several days now. It was getting final agreement from the Israeli side, they said, that appeared to be the last hurdle.
The White House deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer, on Sunday said any deal to free “considerably more than 12” hostages would be likely to also include an extended pause in the fighting and allow for the distribution of humanitarian assistance in Gaza.
A staged release would be the first de-escalatory step since Hamas launched its assault on Israel on 7 October. So far, only four hostages have been released. It is thought 239 people from 26 different countries are still being held, including some dual nationals. One Israeli soldier was rescued early in the conflict.
Ben-Gvir’s proposal on capital punishment has moved slowly in parliament. The conservative Likud party of Netanyahu, which depends on support from far-right parties to remain in power, has shown little interest in advancing it during its long rule.
Israel’s justice ministry said earlier this month that officials were considering different procedures for putting suspected militants on trial and securing “punishments befitting the severity of the horrors committed”.
The hostages have already been threatened with execution by Hamas and are at risk of being hurt or killed in the military offensive launched by Israel. Israeli officials have said that two hostages were murdered by Hamas after being captured, citing forensic examination of their remains found by Israeli troops in northern Gaza.
The death penalty remains on Israel’s law books but the only ever court-ordered execution in Israel was that, in 1962, of Adolf Eichmann, a convicted Nazi war criminal who played a central role in the administration of the Holocaust.
Israeli military courts, which often handle cases involving Palestinians, have the power to hand down the death penalty by a unanimous decision of three judges, although this has never been implemented.
Hawkish politicians have, over the years, proposed making capital sentences easier to award, claiming executions deter terrorism.
Doing this was “more critical now than ever”, Ben-Gvir said, “first of all, for the sake of those murdered and who fell in the line of duty and, no less, so that there will be no more people kidnapped.”
Linor Dan-Calderon, three of whose relatives are hostages, accused Ben-Gvir’s party of having “confused priorities”.
“You’ve gotten mixed up, because we are a nation that pursues life, not one that pursues revenge – even if, in the past, we did something to Eichmann,” she said. “I am simply asking you to drop this from the agenda.”
Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, said the heated argument in parliament on Monday was “shameful, a disgrace, and a terrible insult not only to the families of hostages but also to the entire state of Israel”.
Lapid said: “This is what happens when you take the craziest and most extreme people in the country and let them be in power.”