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Israel’s assault on Gaza adds to uncertainty of fragile hostage talks

“The clock is ticking,” a diplomat with knowledge of the hostage talks told NBC News.
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TEL AVIV — The Israeli government is both in talks to try to free the hostages held in Gaza for over a month and pushing on with a military campaign that could risk their lives or turn out to be a hostage rescue.

Israel’s ongoing ground assault in Gaza is fueling mounting outrage as hospitals in the north of the strip face an increasingly dire situation. It is also helping fuel growing anxiety among those closest to the talks.

"The clock is ticking," a diplomat with knowledge of the hostage talks said. "It has to happen this week, because Israel is getting deeper into Gaza. If Hamas is pushed too far, they may think they have nothing to lose. The further the Israelis get, the more they’ll think they don’t need the hostage talks."

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A possible deal, according to the diplomat, could include "somewhere between 10-20 hostages released initially, a pause of one to three days, the supply of aid, including fuel, and the freeing of Palestinian women and children."

But, the diplomat said, "the last time talks stalled was because Israel wanted a list of hostages and Hamas was questioning the sequence of events, like when fuel would be supplied. The sequence of events is still an issue."

Ongoing ground operation of the Israeli army against Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers in ground operations in the Gaza Strip in an image the Israel Defense Forces released Monday.Israel Defense Forces / via Reuters

Discussions to free the more than 200 hostages have been underway since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing hundreds of people. Five hostages — two women taken from a kibbutz near Gaza, an American mother and daughter and Pvt. Ori Megidish — have been rescued or released.

Speaking Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government knows "a great deal" about where the hostages are, but he didn't elaborate.

Michael Levy, who said he has been told his brother Or is one of the hostages, said he tries "to keep the optimistic part stronger, but it’s not easy, especially not the fact that we see how Hamas is trying to play with our minds and release those videos and tell the hostages what to say."

Or Levy.
Or Levy.Courtesy of Michael Levy

One of the videos, which Hamas' military wing released Oct. 30, showed Yelena Troufanov, 50, sitting to the right of two other women.

Her husband, Vitaly, was killed, and her mother, Irena; her son, Sasha; and his girlfriend, Sapir, were all kidnapped. Video showed Sapir being taken to Gaza on the back of a motorcycle.

With no relatives to call out for their return, their friends Shiri Grosbard and Ilan Shusterman are speaking for them.

“We have a saying in Hebrew,” Grosbard said, “which basically means that we stand up for each other, we vouch for each other. And this family doesn’t have anyone to speak for them, because they’ve all been either murdered or kidnapped, so we’re here because they will not be forgotten.”

She added: “We’re their family for now, until they come back, until they come home.”

Sasha Troufanov and his girlfriend, Sapir.
Sasha Troufanov and his girlfriend, Sapir.Courtesy of Shiri Grosbard and Ilan Shusterman

On Saturday, Sasha Troufanov turned 28. The friends lit candles on a birthday cake and vowed not to blow them out until he’s back. And they hoped his grandmother Irena, a retired pediatrician, has been kept close to children to help care for them.

Grosbard shared a message for the family: “Please, please stay safe and please take care of yourselves, and please know that everyone here is doing everything that they can to bring you home safe.” 

A Biden administration official said Sunday one possible deal that’s being discussed includes the release of about 80 women and children in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and teenagers held in Israel. The U.S. is also exploring other options, the official said, and it's not certain any will succeed.

Vitaly, Sasha, Yelena and Irena Troufanov.
Vitaly, Sasha, Yelena and Irena Troufanov.Courtesy of Shiri Grosbard and Ilan Shusterman

The Israel Defense Forces have said 239 hostages are being held.

The diplomat with knowledge of the talks said, “We don’t currently have a clear picture of how many are held,” while the United Nations says holding hostages and refusing access to them is a war crime.

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government for a pause in the fighting to allow the hostages to be released, but Netanyahu has reiterated that there will be no cease-fire without the release of the hostages.

On "Meet the Press," Netanyahu said: "We weren’t close at all until we started the ground invasion. We heard that there’s an impending deal of this kind or that kind. It was nothing, but the minute we started the ground operation, things began to change."

Netanyahu said there "could be" a potential hostage deal, "the result of pressure, military pressure."

Not all the families and friends believe the military campaign is the right approach. Yonatan Zeigen’s mother, Vivian Silver, 74, was taken from the Be'eri kibbutz.

"When people say here no cease-fire without all the hostages," he said, "in my mind, we are actually saying that we’re giving time for the military solution. Take your time, win, whatever that means, and we’ll see who’s left of the hostages."

(Hours after this article was published, Israel’s consul general in Toronto and Women Wage Peace, the organization where Silver worked, said she was killed on Oct. 7 at kibbutz Be’eri, where she lived.)

The lack of information is compounding the agony for the families.

"It feels like it’s not my life; it’s someone else’s life," Michael Levy said. "It feels like I’m an actor in a movie or something. It doesn’t feel as if it’s happening to me, to my family."