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Israel-Hamas war: Houthis vow to keep up attacks; cease-fire talks threaten to split Israel’s right-wing Cabinet

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading back to the region as the White House works to ensure to the release of hostages, negotiate a humanitarian pause and increase aid to Gaza.

Coverage on this live blog has ended. Please click here for the latest updates.

What we know

  • National security adviser Jake Sullivan did not rule out strikes inside Iran in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." He told moderator Kristen Welker, who pressed him on the issue: "I’m not going to get into what we’ve ruled in and ruled out from the point of view of military action."
  • Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels said today that last night's American and British airstrikes would not deter them from "supporting" the Palestinians and vowed that the attacks would "not go unanswered or unpunished."
  • The U.S. and the United Kingdom said they struck 36 Houthi targets in 13 locations in Yemen last night in an effort to "disrupt and degrade the capabilities" Houthis have used to attack ships in the Red Sea. The new barrage of attacks follows Friday's airstrikes on 85 targets at seven facilities in Iraq and Syria.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return to the Middle East later today, with stops planned in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the occupied West Bank. He is expected to further diplomatic efforts for the release of hostages, an extended humanitarian pause to the fighting in Gaza and increased aid to the enclave.
  • More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. More than 64,400 have been injured, and thousands more are missing and presumed dead.
  • Israeli military officials said at least 220 soldiers have been killed during the ground invasion of Gaza.
  • NBC News’ Keir Simmons, Raf Sanchez, Courtney Kube, Matt Bradley and Chantal Da Silva are reporting from the region.

U.S. carries out self-defense strikes on missiles in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen

U.S. Central Command forces launched self-defense strikes against land attack and anti-ship cruise missles in Yemen today, the agency said on X.

At approximately 5:30 a.m. local time, forces launched a strike "in self-defense against a Houthi a land attack cruise missile," Central Command said.

Then, starting at 10:30 a.m., "U.S. forces struck four anti-ship cruise missiles, all of which were prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea," Central Command said.

U.S. forces identified the missiles in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, and determined they were a threat to U.S. Navy ships and other merchant vessels in the area, according to Central Command.

The strikes were not a continuation of Saturday's coalition strikes.

For U.S. carrier pilots, a vexing mission hunting down Houthi missiles and drones 

ABOARD THE USS EISENHOWER in the Red Sea — For the pilots on board this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the effort to safeguard commercial shipping in the Red Sea requires them to adapt their high-tech training to an unexpected — and potentially vexing — new mission.

“We did not train to come to the South Red Sea and do what we are currently doing,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Travis Keating, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot. “When we first came out here, we had a lot of unknowns.”

Keating, who goes by the call sign “Sunshine,” struck an optimistic tone when asked about pilots’ daunting goal: locating and destroying hidden weapons depots in Houthi-controlled Yemen, a country famed for its rough mountainous terrain.

Read the full story here.

84 targets damaged in U.S. strikes on Friday, Pentagon says

Mosheh Gains

At least 84 of the locations targeted by the U.S. in Iraq and Syria on Friday "were destroyed or functionally damaged," according to a preliminary assessment by the Defense Department.

The department said it struck more than 85 sites in Iraq and Syria following last week's attack on a base in Jordan where three U.S. troops were killed and dozens more were injured. There was one attack on the MSS Euphrates yesterday after the strikes Friday, but no injuries were reported.

No members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who the Pentagon said sponsored the attack, were killed in the strikes Friday. Iranian representatives have denied any involvement in the attack on American service members in Jordan.

"The facilities struck included command and control operations centers, intelligence centers, rockets, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicle storage, and logistics and munition supply chain facilities of militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces," the department said.

6-year-old girl in Gaza goes missing after she is caught in fighting

Hind Rajab was petrified.

She was trapped in a car with her aunt, uncle and four cousins. All of them were dead. An Israeli tank loomed outside the car. Night was falling. For three hours she begged on the phone, her voice small and often trembling, for someone to come get her.

Hind is 6 years old.

“Come take me. Please, will you come?” she said on an emergency call Monday with a dispatcher at the Palestine Red Crescent Society, which released the recording.

Palestinian girl Hind who remains trapped amid desperate efforts to recover her safely in Gaza
6-year-old Palestinian girl Hind Rajab.via PRCS

Hind and her family had piled into the car, hoping to escape fighting near where they were staying in Gaza City. Near a gas station, a bombing killed or rendered five of her family members unconscious; the sixth, her 15-year-old cousin Layan, had survived.

Layan called for help. She told the operator that a tank was closing in, there was a burst of gunfire, and she began screaming. Then the line went dead. The next time dispatchers reached the number, it was Hind who answered.

Layan had been killed, Hind said. The dispatcher told Hind to continue to hide in the car and asked her whether she was surrounded by gunfire.

“Yes,” she said, her voice choked.

The PRCS sent an ambulance team to rescue Hind several hours after the girls first made contact. Because it was an active combat area, the Palestinian emergency service said, it had to request and eventually received permission from Israeli authorities to go where the family’s vehicle had been trapped by fighting.

Read the full story here.

E.U. representative says refusing to fund UNRWA could amount to collective punishment

Josep Borrell, the European Union's representative for foreign affairs, penned a blog post today arguing that some countries' decisions to suspend funding to a United Nations agency could amount to a collective punishment against Palestinians.

Israel has accused a dozen staff members of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East of having ties to terrorism groups, some of whom allegedly participated in Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The U.N. has launched an investigation into the matter and terminated contracts with surviving staff members it was able to identify based on Israel's allegations.

Borrell encouraged the investigation in his post but also warned that refusing to fund UNRWA would have devastating consequences for Palestinians, who rely on the agency both in Gaza and throughout the region. He described defunding UNRWA as "disproportionate and dangerous."

"The wrongdoing of individuals should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire population," Borrell wrote. "Moreover, as I discussed this week with some of my counterparts from Arab countries, UNRWA’s demise would also be a serious risk for regional stability."

Collective punishment in an armed conflict is forbidden by international law and considered to be a war crime.

Borrell went on to make clear that UNRWA only exists because Palestinians do not have a sovereign state, despite decadeslong calls for one across the globe.

"Advocating for the end of UNRWA often confuses cause with consequence," Borrell wrote. "The agency's continued existence, since it was established in 1949, is the direct consequence of the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been resolved."

Iranian foreign minister condemns strikes in Yemen, Iraq and Syria

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian condemned the retaliatory U.S. strikes in the Syria and Iraq, as well as the coalition strikes in Yemen, warning that it could bring about the "wrath of the region."

"In my meeting with the UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron, I clearly said, ‘Continuation of war is not the solution.’ [You] do not [want to] test the wrath of the region," the minister wrote in an X post today.

"We consider the security of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank) to be the security of the region."

President Joe Biden told reporters this week that he did place some blame on Iran for the strikes against U.S. troops in Jordan last week, as the group responsible was Iran-backed, according to U.S. officials. Representatives for the Iranian regime previously denied any connection to the attack, calling it a baseless accusation.

Israel foreign minister claims UNRWA is part of a 'Palestinian lie that there are refugees'

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Israel is working to remove the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East from Gaza, accusing it of being part of a "Palestinian lie."

"@UNRWA is part of the problem. Part of the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas in Gaza," Katz wrote. "Part of the Palestinian lie that there are 'refugees' who need to return to the State of Israel. We are working to remove UNRWA from Gaza. They are the problem — not the solution."

Katz's comments are the latest among Israeli officials critical of the organization following reports that 12 UNRWA employees either participated in Hamas Oct. 7 attack or have ties to terror groups. Surviving staff members identified were terminated and UNRWA launched an investigation into the matter.

The definition of a refugee, as defined by the U.N., is a person who has been forced to flee their home and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country. The U.N. also includes the right to return to their home country in its universal declaration of human rights.

UNRWA has more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees living in camps in Jordan, more than 489,000 in Lebanon and an estimated 438,000 believed to be in Syria, though more than half a million are registered. These numbers do not include those displaced within Israel's borders in the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians who were displaced in the region by conflict with Israel, including those who fled the 1948 war and were never able to return home, often have a precarious legal status within in their host countries.

Possible hostage deal threatens to divide Israel’s right-wing Cabinet

Matt Bradley

Natasha Lebedeva

Matt Bradley and Natasha Lebedeva

TEL AVIV — As Hamas prepares to deliver its verdict on a proposed deal for a cease-fire and the freeing of more than a hundred hostages in Gaza, ministers, political analysts and people close to Israel’s prime minister say the accord threatens to tear apart the country’s right-wing Cabinet.

While Hamas deliberates, Israel’s war Cabinet is expected to discuss the deal during a meeting Sunday evening, according to Israeli media.

But Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister of national security, threatened last week on X that “a reckless deal = the dismantling of the government.”

Hours after Ben-Gvir’s comments, opposition leader Yair Lapid volunteered his center-left Yesh Atid Party to enter the Cabinet to rescue the coalition and the hostage deal if Ben-Gvir withdraws.

Even if the current government survives, the conflict over the hostage deal exposes profound rifts in Israeli society. The deal pits dueling narratives of Israel’s vision of itself against each other: its solemn pledge to its soldiers and citizens that no one will be left behind, versus Israel’s oft-stated goal that it will destroy its enemies at any cost.

Read the full story here.

Houthis say continued U.S. and U.K. attacks will not deter them

Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesperson for the Houthis, released a statement today in the wake of more strikes in Yemen, asserting that continued aggression from the U.S. and U.K. "will not achieve any goals."

The Yemeni militia postured that its capabilities "are not easily destroyed" after years of internal warfare within the country and it will not be swayed away from its support of Gaza, Absusalam said in a post on X. He added that attacks in Yemen, Iraq and Syria "will increase the hatred" against the American presence in the region.

"Instead of escalating and igniting a new front in the region, America and Britain should comply with international public opinion, which demands an immediate stop to the Israeli aggression, lifting the siege on Gaza, and to stop protecting Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people," he said, according to an NBC News translation.

Houthis have been launching attacks in the Red Sea for the last few months in what the militia described as support for Palestinians. The group said it has gone after vessels that it believes have ties to Israel, while the U.S. and several other countries have said their attacks are illegal and negatively affecting global trade.

Iran issues warning to not target ships believed to carry out surveillance


Keir Simmons

Mo Abbas

Keir Simmons, Mo Abbas and Dan De Luce

Iran today issued an unprecedented warning to the U.S. not to target what some experts and officials believe are Iranian ships funneling intelligence to the Houthis in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, saying they are “floating armories” that are “fighting piracy.”

The accusation that the Iran-flagged MV Behshad has been causing, “significant problems” is “sort of an open secret within government circles,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “Wherever the Behshad goes happens to be more or less where the Houthis happen to be targeting their anti-ship ballistic missiles, suicide drones and suicide boats.”

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank told NBC News: “The Behshad is the latest of a series of Iranian spy ships that have been anchored in the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden since 2009.”

The video message in English and Persian posted on the army’s official Telegram channel warns against attacks on the MV Behshad, which is registered as a commercial cargo vessel and has been in the Red Sea region for about a year.

“Those engaging in terrorist activity against Behshad or similar vessels jeopardize maritime routes, security, and assume global responsibility for potential future international risks,” the unnamed narrator of the video says in English.

The video comes as national security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” refused to rule out any targets in “additional strikes.” Shipping experts say striking a ship sailing under the Iranian flag is equivalent to targeting Iran’s sovereign territory. But it is not without precedent. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan ordered the sinking of Iranian vessels.

In December, a National Security Council briefing accused Iran of providing “robust” support to the Houthis, including “proliferation of advanced weapons systems, intelligence support, and financial aid and training,” NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson told reporters. “We know the intelligence picture which the Houthis use to operate in the maritime space is reliant on Iranian-provided monitoring systems.”

Gaza doctor describes ordeal of 45 days in Israeli detention


RAFAH, Gaza Strip — A Palestinian doctor says Israeli forces in Gaza detained him when they overran a hospital and subjected him to abuse during 45 days of captivity including sleep deprivation and constant shackling and blindfolding before releasing him last week.

Doctor Said Abdulrahman Maarouf was working at al-Ahli al-Arab hospital in Gaza City when it was surrounded by Israeli forces in December.

He described having his hands cuffed, his legs shackled and his eyes masked for the nearly seven-week duration of his imprisonment. He said he was told to sleep in places that were covered with pebbles without a mattress, pillow or cover and with loud music blaring.

“The torture was very severe in Israeli prison. I am a doctor. My weight was 87 kilograms. I lost, in 45 days, more than 25 kilograms. I lost my balance. I lost focus. I lost all feeling,” he said.

“However you describe the suffering and the insults in prison you can never know the reality unless you lived through it,” he added.

Maarouf said he has no idea where he was detained as he was blindfolded throughout his detention, and he was not sure if he was held inside or outside Gaza. He was dropped at the Kerem Shalom crossing and was picked up by the Red Cross.

Israel’s military did not respond to a Reuters request for comment after more than a day but said it would have a statement later. It has previously denied targeting or abusing civilians and accuses Hamas of using hospitals for military operations, which Hamas denies.

Speaker Mike Johnson defends advancing stand-alone Israel bill that the White House dismisses as a ‘ploy’

House Speaker Mike Johnson on Sunday defended pushing a stand-alone bill to provide aid to Israel after the Senate struck a tentative immigration deal that it intends to vote on this week.

During an interview on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” moderator Kristen Welker asked Johnson, R-La., whether he proposed the stand-alone Israel aid package to kill the compromise deal in the Senate.

“No, we’ve made very clear what the requirements of the House were, and that is to solve the problem at the border,” he said, adding that the House has been “awaiting” action from the Senate.

“We cannot wait any longer. The House is willing to lead, and the reason we have to take care of this Israel situation right now is because the situation has escalated,” he said, noting recent airstrikes by the U.S. targeting Iran-backed militant groups in retaliation for the killing of three American soldiers.

Read the full story here.

U.K. prime minister: Attacks on shipping are 'unacceptable'

Leila Sackur

Houthi attacks on U.K. and international vessels are “unacceptable,” the U.K.’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on X today, in a post confirming British involvement in the strikes across Yemen last night.

Sunak, who is battling increasingly dire polling ahead of a predicted election this year, said that Royal Air Force Typhoons “successfully took out specific Houthi military targets in Yemen, further degrading the Houthis’ capabilities.”

Sunak’s post followed an update from the U.K.’s Foreign Minister David Cameron, who said on X that U.K. and U.S. attacks followed “repeated warnings to the Houthis.”

Hamas condemns attacks on Yemen, calls on Arab League to respond

Leila Sackur

Hamas has “strongly condemned” a new wave of U.S.-British strikes on Yemen, and said the moves would cause more turmoil in the region.

The U.S. and the U.K. said they had struck 36 Houthi targets in 13 locations across Yemen today, with the aim of “degrad[ing] the capabilities” of Houthis to attack commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea in support of Hamas.

In its statement, released on Telegram, Hamas expressed its “appreciation” for the Iran-backed Houthis, and called on the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — of which rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are part — to “take a decisive stance” against the attacks.

While Iran backs the Houthis, Saudi Arabia has long opposed them. More recently, Riyadh has worked to wind down the civil war in desperately poor Yemen, which saw it conduct an extensive and deeply damaging bombing campaign throughout the country.

Sirens sound in northern Israel, Hezbollah and IDF exchange fire

Ammar Cheikh Omar

Sirens sounded along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon today as Hezbollah said it had attacked multiple locations.

The alarms were heard in the Israeli towns and cities of Metula, Margaliot and Kiryat Shmona.

The IDF said that fighter jets struck a Hezbollah launch post in response to the attacks, and observation posts in Blida and Meiss Al-Jabal, two villages in southern Lebanon. It also said it had struck a cell in Blida using tank fire. NBC News was unable to independently verify this report.

A later statement from Hezbollah said it struck the city of Margaliot in response to the Israeli attacks on Blida and Meis Al-Jabal, achieving “direct hits.” NBC News was unable to independently verify this report. No injuries or damage were reported by Israel.

Netanyahu applauds Biden after Cabinet member praises Trump

Leila Sackur

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Israel has destroyed 17 of 24 Hamas battalions, in comments during a weekly Cabinet meeting today.

Reiterating his goal of “the elimination of Hamas,” Netanyahu said Israel would “take care of” remaining Hamas battalions, which he said were based in Rafah and the wider southern Gaza strip. Israel will also undertake “purification” operations after Hamas is destroyed, intensifying raids in the north and central strip, as well as “neutralizing” Hamas’ underground tunnels, which he said would take “more time.”

Appearing to try to soften criticisms of President Joe Biden made by Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in The Wall Street Journal, Netanyahu told the Cabinet, “We greatly appreciate the support we have received from the Biden administration.”

“This does not mean that we do not have differences of opinion,” he added. “Until today we have managed to overcome [differences with the U.S.] with determined and considered decisions.”

U.S. national security adviser refuses to rule out strikes inside Iran

National security adviser Jake Sullivan has not ruled out strikes inside Iran after the U.S. last week targeted Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the killing of three American soldiers.

“Well, sitting here today on a national news program, I’m not going to get into what we’ve ruled in and ruled out from the point of view of military action,” he said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” after being pressed on the issue by moderator Kristen Welker.

Read full story here.

Poor sanitation worsens children's suffering in Gaza's camps

Leila Sackur

Between 500 and 700 people have to share one toilet in Gaza's refugee camps, which are home to 1.5 million displaced by the war in the strip, according to the U.N.'s fund for children.

Poor sanitary conditions are causing a spike in levels of waterborne diseases such as chronic diarrhea, which threatens the lives of children, UNICEF said in an update on X on Saturday.

Most newly displaced people only have 1.5 to 2 liters of water per day, UNICEF added, rationed for drinking, cooking and washing. Human beings are meant to consume 2 liters of fluid each per day.

Displaced Palestinians walk through raiy weather and flooded streets to get food rations at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb. 2, 2024.
Displaced Palestinians walk through flooded streets in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb. 2, 2024.Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images

'Any criticism' of Qatar within Israel needs to stop, says ex-Mossad chief

Leila Sackur

The ex-chief of Israel's intelligence agency Mossad has said that public criticism of Qatar — which is acting as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas in hostage and cease fire negotiations — must stop.

In comments to Army Radio, reported by the Times of Israel today, ex-chief Yossi Cohen said, “This is the only country which can bring a deal at the moment. Publicly quarreling with it is wrong, and we need to act wisely. Any criticism of Qatar at this point in time needs to be stopped.”

Seeming to respond to the reluctance of several Israeli government members, particularly on the far right, to negotiate for the return of some 100 hostages in return for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, Cohen said Israel “will have to pay anyway” for any deal, “so let’s pay it today from the start for everyone, and cut down the inhumane time the hostages are spending in Gaza.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly criticized Qatar in recent weeks, allegedly describing the state as “problematic” in leaked audio recordings. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has also accused Doha of “supporting and funding terrorism.”

U.S. conduct toward Israel would be 'completely different' under Trump, says far-right minister

Leila Sackur

The U.S. would focus more on helping Israel wage war in Gaza and less on the humanitarian situation in the enclave if former President Donald Trump were in back in power, a prominent far-right member of Israel's Cabinet has told The Wall Street Journal.

In rare direct critique of an American president, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also accused President Joe Biden of hampering Israel's war effort, and said that U.S. conduct toward Israel would be "completely different" if Trump were in power.

"Instead of giving us his full backing, Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel [to Gaza], which goes to Hamas," Ben-Gvir told the paper. He opposes any humanitarian aid being allowed into the strip, and also opposes any deal with Hamas that would see the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages still held in Gaza, posting on X Tuesday that he would "dismantle" the government if it passed.

The leader of Israel's ultranationalist Jewish Power party, a key player in Netanyahu's fragile coalition, Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of racist incitement against Arabs and of support of Kach, a Zionist group designated as a terror organization by both Israel and the U.S. His party currently calls for a one-state solution, entailing full Israeli control of all land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, enhanced deportations of Palestinians, and the annexation of the West Bank.

His plan for Gaza is to "encourage Gazans to voluntarily emigrate to places around the world," he told The Wall Street Journal, and the resumption of Jewish settlement-building in the strip, which Israel pulled out of in 2005.

Photo: Child surveys bombing damage

NBC News

A child inspects damage to a building in Rafah, southern Gaza, today. According to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, Israeli forces killed 127 people and injured another 178 in the past 24 hours.

A young person inspects damage to a building following Israeli airstrikes, on Feb. 3 in Rafah, Gaza.
A young person inspects damage to a building following Israeli airstrikes, on Feb. 3 in Rafah, Gaza.Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

Palestine Red Crescent Society bids farewell to three members killed in ‘past few days’

The Palestine Red Crescent Society bid farewell to three members killed in Gaza over the “past few days.”

Naeem Hasan Al-Jabali, Khalid Kulab and Hidaya Hamad were killed by Israeli fire in the PRCS headquarters and Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis, according to the group.

Hamad, the group’s director of the youth and volunteers department, was killed yesterday.

“Hedaya was killed when, as usual, she rushed to rescue the injured displaced people who were sheltering at PRCS after being shot by Israeli soldiers,” PRCS said on X. “Until the last breath, Hedaya embodied the meanings of sacrifice, humanity and volunteerism that she has always believed in throughout her life and the course of her work and volunteering.”

Hamas demands Israel release Marwan Barghouti, a man some Palestinians see as their Nelson Mandela

Associated Press

JERUSALEM — He’s viewed by some Palestinians as their Nelson Mandela, and he’s a prime candidate to become their president in the future. He’s also the highest-profile prisoner held by Israel.

Now Marwan Barghouti’s freedom is at stake in cease-fire negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Hamas leaders demanded Friday that Israel release Barghouti, a leader of the militant group’s main political rival, as part of any deal to end the fighting in Gaza.

The demand brings new attention to Barghouti, who plays a central role in Palestinian politics even after spending more than two decades behind bars. His release could lay the groundwork for his eventual election to national office.

Hamas’ gambit to free him appears to be an attempt to rally public support for the militant group as well as a recognition of his status as a uniquely unifying Palestinian figure.

“Hamas wants to show to the Palestinian people that they are not a closed movement. They represent part of the Palestinian social community. They are trying to seem responsible,” said Qadoura Fares, who heads the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoner Affairs in the occupied West Bank and has long been involved in negotiations over prisoner releases.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan called for Barghouti’s release as international mediators try to push Israel and Hamas toward an agreement after nearly four months of war.

Israel is seeking the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is demanding an end to Israel’s devastating military offensive and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

The war broke out Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters crossed into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and dragging 250 hostages back to Gaza. The Hamas attack triggered an Israeli ground and air campaign that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Over 100 hostages were released during a weeklong truce in November. Israel estimates 136 hostages remain in captivity, though 20 have been pronounced dead. With protests calling for the hostages’ immediate release sweeping Israel, and fears that time is running out to bring them home safely, pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach a deal.

For Palestinians, the plight of their imprisoned loved ones is deeply emotional. While Israel considers “security prisoners” to be terrorists, Palestinians widely see them as heroes battling Israeli occupation. Virtually every Palestinian has a friend, relative or acquaintance who has been imprisoned.

The Israeli human rights group HaMoked says Israel is currently holding nearly 9,000 security prisoners. Hamas seeks the release of all of them. But in his remarks Friday, Hamdan mentioned only two by name — Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat.

Saadat heads a small faction that killed an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001 and is serving a 30-year sentence for allegedly participating in attacks.

Palestinians see the 64-year-old Barghouti, a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, as a natural successor to the 88-year-old Abbas, who leads the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, the self-ruled government that administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were overrun by Hamas in 2007, hopes to regain control of the territory after the war. But he is deeply unpopular because of corruption within the authority and because of his security coordination with the Israeli army.

Palestinians have not held elections since 2006, when Hamas won a parliamentary majority.

Fares, a Barghouti supporter, said that if Barghouti is released, he could become a consensus candidate in a round of new elections that Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions could rally behind. A wartime opinion poll published in December showed Barghouti to be the most popular politician among Palestinians, ahead of both Abbas and Hamas’ leader, Ismail Haniyeh.

Israelis see Barghouti as an arch-terrorist, and convincing Israel to free him will be an uphill battle.

Barghouti, a leader in the West Bank during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, is serving five life terms for his role in several deadly attacks. During that uprising, Palestinian militants carried out deadly suicide bombings and shooting attacks targeting buses, restaurants, hotels and Israelis driving in the West Bank, eliciting crushing Israeli military reprisals.

In 2002, Barghouti was arrested on multiple counts of murder. He did not offer a defense, refusing to recognize the court’s authority. Since then, he has repeatedly thrust himself into the spotlight.

In 2021, he registered his own list for parliamentary elections that were later called off. A few years earlier, he led more than 1,500 prisoners in a 40-day hunger strike to call for better treatment in the Israeli prison system. From jail, he has continued to call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — lands Israel seized in the 1967 war.

Barghouti was born in the West Bank village of Kobar in 1962. While studying history and politics at Bir Zeit University, he helped spearhead student protests against the Israeli occupation.

He emerged as an organizer in the first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in December 1987, but Israel eventually deported him to Jordan. He returned to the West Bank in the 1990s, as part of interim peace agreements that were meant to pave the way for a Palestinian state but got bogged down by the end of the decade when a second uprising erupted.

Barghouti was seen as political leader of the armed wing of Fatah at the time.

Israel has previously rejected calls to free him. It refused to include him in a 2011 exchange of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single soldier held captive in Gaza by Hamas, said Fares, who was party to the negotiations. Yehya Sinwar, the current Hamas leader in Gaza and a mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack, was freed in that exchange.

The 2011 negotiations revolved around the release of a single hostage. With the lives of over 100 hostages now hanging in the balance, there is more pressure than ever on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. That may make conditions ripe for a deal that could simultaneously win Barghouti’s release and bolster Hamas’ standing among Palestinians.

“Hamas is more strong and more clever than ever before,” Fares said. “They understand how necessary it is for the Palestinian people to have consensus.”

Houthis vow response to U.S. and U.K. airstrikes

Ammar Cheikh Omar

Yemen's Iran-linked Houthis said they would not be deterred by last night's American and British airstrikes, adding that the attacks would "not go unanswered or unpunished."

"These aggressions will not deter us from our moral, religious, and humanitarian stance supporting the steadfast Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, and will not go unanswered or unpunished," a spokesman for the group, which controls much of Yemen, said in a statement.

He put the number of airstrikes at 47. The U.S. has said it struck 36 Houthi targets in an effort to “disrupt and degrade the capabilities” the group has used to attack ships in the Red Sea.