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What does Israel’s rescue of 4 captives, and the killing of 274 Palestinians, mean for truce talks?

What does Israel’s rescue of 4 captives, and the killing of 274 Palestinians, mean for truce talks?

By TIA GOLDENBERG (Associated Press)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s dramatic weekend rescue of four hostages from the Gaza Strip, in an operation that local health officials say killed 274 Palestinians, came at a sensitive time in the 8-month-old war, as Israel and Hamas weigh a U.S. proposal for a cease-fire and the release of the remaining captives.

Both sides face renewed pressure to make a deal: The complex rescue is unlikely to be replicated on a scale needed to bring back scores of remaining hostages, and it was a powerful reminder for Israelis that there are still surviving captives held in harsh conditions. Hamas, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union, now has four fewer bargaining chips.

But they could also dig in, as they repeatedly have over months of indirect negotiations mediated by the United States, Qatar and Egypt. Hamas is still insisting on an end to the war as part of any agreement, while Israel says it is still committed to destroying the group.

Here is a look at the fallout from the operation and how it might affect cease-fire talks:

ELATION, AND MOUNTING CALLS FOR A DEAL

The rescue operation was Israel’s most successful since the start of the war, bringing home four of the roughly 250 captives seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 cross-border attack, including Noa Argamani, who became an icon of the struggle to free the hostages.

The raid also killed at least 274 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, deepening the suffering of people in Gaza who have had to endure the brutal war and a humanitarian catastrophe. The ministry does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its tallies.

The rescue was met with elation in Israel, which is still reeling from the Hamas attack and agonizing over the fate of the 80 captives and the remains of over 40 others still held in Gaza. Israeli hard-liners are likely to seize on it as proof that military pressure alone will bring the rest back.

But only three other hostages have been freed by military force since the start of the war. Another three were mistakenly killed by Israeli forces after they escaped on their own, and Hamas says others have been killed in Israeli airstrikes.

“If anyone believes that yesterday’s operation absolves the government of the need to strike a deal, they are living a fantasy,” Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper. “There are people out there who need to be saved, and the sooner the better.”

Even the Israeli army’s spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, acknowledged the limits of military force. “What will bring most of the hostages back home alive is a deal,” he told reporters.

Over 100 hostages were released during a weeklong cease-fire last year, in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and reaching a similar agreement is still widely seen as the only way of getting the rest of the hostages back. Hours after Saturday’s rescue, tens of thousands of Israelis attended protests in Tel Aviv calling for such a deal.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week announced a proposal for a phased plan for a cease-fire and hostage release, setting in motion the administration’s most concentrated diplomatic push for a truce.

Biden described it as an Israeli proposal, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly questioned some aspects of it, particularly its call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and a lasting truce. His ultranationalist coalition partners have threatened to bring down his government if he ends the war without destroying Hamas.

That appears to have only deepened suspicions on the part of Hamas, which has demanded international guarantees that the war will end. It’s unclear if such guarantees have been offered, and Hamas has not yet officially responded to the plan.

NETANYAHU SEEKS TO GAIN

The rescue operation was a rare win for Netanyahu, who many Israelis blame for the security failures leading up to the Oct. 7 attack and the failure to return the hostages despite months of grinding war.

He has reveled in the operation’s success, rushing Saturday to the hospital where the freed hostages were held and meeting with each of them as cameras rolled. The rescue operation will likely help rehabilitate his image.

But as the elation fades, he will still face heavy pressure from an American administration that wants to wind the war down and an ultranationalist base that wants to vanquish Hamas at all costs. His main political opponent, the retired general Benny Gantz, quit the emergency wartime coalition on Sunday, leaving Netanyahu even more beholden to the hard-liners.

Netanyahu is already facing criticism from some of the families of deceased hostages, who say they received no such visits and accuse him of only taking credit for the war’s successes. Israel will also likely face heightened international pressure over the raid’s high Palestinian death toll.

“The success in freeing four hostages is a magnificent tactical victory that has not changed our deplorable strategic situation,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Israel’s Maariv daily.

It all makes for a tough balancing act, even for someone like Netanyahu, who friends and foes alike consider to be a master politician.

The operation could provide the kind of boost with the Israeli public that would allow him to justify making a deal with Hamas. Or he might conclude that time is on his side, and that he can drive a harder bargain with Hamas as it grapples with a major setback.

HAMAS LOSES BARGAINING CHIPS

Hamas has lost four precious bargaining chips it had hoped to trade for high-profile Palestinian prisoners. Argamani, widely known from a video showing her pleading for her life as terrorists dragged her away on a motorcycle, was a particularly significant loss for Hamas.

The raid may have also dealt a blow to Hamas’ morale. In the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas managed to humiliate a country with a far superior army, and since then it has repeatedly regrouped despite devastating military operations across Gaza.

But the fact that Israel was able to mount a complex rescue operation in broad daylight in the center of a crowded urban area has at least temporarily restored some of the mystique that Israel’s security forces lost on Oct. 7.

The operation also refocused global attention on the hostage crisis at a time when the U.S. is rallying world pressure on Hamas to accept the cease-fire deal.

But Hamas has a long history of withstanding pressure from Israel and others — often at enormous cost to Palestinians. The fighters may conclude that it’s best to use the remaining hostages to end the war while they still can — or they might just look for better places to hide them.

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