Hamas is preventing the release of a 10-month-old baby held captive in Gaza, Israel said on Monday night.
Kfir Bibas, the youngest hostage kidnapped by Hamas, has been handed over to a separate Palestinian terror group in the southern city of Khan Younis, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said.
The city is expected to be a target of Israel’s next offensive, raising the prospect the infant is being used for further leverage in talks to extend the truce.
Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, promised to “use the same amount of power and more” in a renewed military assault on Gaza when the hostage exchange deal expires.
On Monday, Israel and Hamas agreed a 48-hour extension to the initial four-day agreement, with 20 further hostages set to be released.
Nine children, including three-year-old twins, and two women were freed on Monday.
However, there was outrage after it was claimed that Hamas no longer had control of Kfir and his four-year-old brother Ariel, both kidnapped on Oct 7.
They are believed to be held alongside their parents, Yarden and Shiri. The image of the terrified mother clutching the two children, both of whom have distinctive red hair, is one of the most memorable from the attacks.
On Monday, their aunt, Noah Abrahams, said the news amounted to “just more psychological torture”.
A family statement said: “We are experiencing moments of great uncertainty. The realisation that we will not get the hug we wished for leaves us speechless.”
Meanwhile, Avichay Adraee, an Arabic media spokesman for the IDF, said: “Children and babies under the age of one who have not seen the light of day for more than 50 days are being held captive by Hamas, [who] treats some of them like loot and in some places has transferred them to other terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip.”
Michael Horowitz, a security analyst, said it appeared that the family had been handed over to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist–Leninist terror group.
Rear Adml Daniel Hagari said the responsibility for the hostages remained with Hamas, even if they had passed them on to other groups.
It came as Mr Gallant warned troops that Hamas would be using the pause in fighting to prepare for the expected IDF onslaught in the south. “We will fight in the entire strip,” he said.
On Monday, Izzat al-Risheq, a Hamas political bureau member, suggested to Qatar television that the group was prepared to negotiate the release of soldiers in a separate deal.
It raises the prospect of Israel having to decide whether to release potentially thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including high-value terror suspects.
The release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 came in exchange for 1,027 prisoners, including Yahya Sinwar – who is thought to have planned the Oct 7 attack – and was hugely controversial in Israel.
On Monday, the terror leader was reported to have visited some of the current hostages while they were being held in tunnels under Gaza.
CNN reported a Hamas source as saying that there were 40 hostages not currently under its control.
The Qatari government is believed to be putting pressure on the terror group to ensure that it has access to the abductees in order to release them under the ongoing deals.
Monday’s delay from the scheduled release time was reportedly to be the cause of a disagreement on the number of mothers to be released.
After a brief setback, 11 Israeli hostages and six Thai nationals walked free in the fourth and final batch of the original deal.
French, German and Argentinian dual nationals were exchanged for 33 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, Qatar said.