Gaza’s warring enemies cautious over truce talks

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The prospect of an Israeli invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over civilians trapped there.
The prospect of an Israeli invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over civilians trapped there.

Israel and Hamas as well as Qatari mediators have all sounded notes of caution about progress towards a truce in the Gaza Strip after US President Joe Biden said he believed a ceasefire could be reached in under a week.

Hamas is weighing a proposal, agreed by Israel at talks with mediators in Paris last week, for a ceasefire that would suspend fighting for 40 days, which would be the first extended truce of the five-month-old war. 

Both sides have delegations in Qatar this week hammering out details.

According to a source close to the talks, the Paris proposal would result in militants freeing some but not all of the hostages they are holding, in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian detainees, a surge in humanitarian aid for Gaza and Israeli troops pulling out of populated areas in the enclave.

But it appears to stop short of satisfying Hamas’ main demand for any agreement to include a clear path towards a permanent end to the war and Israeli withdrawal, or resolving the fate of fighting-age Israeli men among the hostages.

In remarks broadcast on a late-night talk show after midnight on Tuesday, Biden said Israel had already agreed to halt fighting in Gaza for Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, which is expected to begin on March 10.

“Ramadan is coming up, and there’s been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan, as well, in order to give us time to get all the hostages out,” Biden said on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Earlier on Monday, Biden said he hoped a ceasefire agreement would be nailed down by March 4: “My national security adviser tells me that they’re close. They’re close. They’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire.”

But Qatar, which has acted as the main mediator, said a breakthrough had yet to be reached.

“We don’t have a final agreement on any of the issues that are hampering reaching an agreement,” Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for Qatar’s foreign ministry, said.

“We remain hopeful that we can get to some kind of agreement.”

Two senior Hamas officials told Reuters that Biden’s remarks appearing to suggest that an agreement had already been reached in principle were premature.

People protest delivery of aid to Gaza until all hostages are freed
The Israeli government has said it will consider only temporary pauses in its war with Hamas. (AP PHOTO)

There were “still big gaps to be bridged,” one of the Hamas officials told Reuters. 

“The primary and main issues of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces are not clearly stated, which delays reaching an agreement.”

Israel did not comment directly on Biden’s remarks but government spokeswoman Tal Heinrich said any deal would still require Hamas to drop “outlandish demands, in another orbit, another planet”.

“We are willing. But the question remains whether Hamas are willing,” she said.

Israeli news website Ynet quoted unidentified senior Israeli officials as saying they did not understand “what (Biden’s) optimism is based on”.

Hamas fighters killed 1200 people and captured 253 hostages on October 7, according to Israeli tallies, triggering Israel’s ground assault on Gaza. 

Health authorities in the enclave say nearly 30,000 people have been confirmed killed.

The prospect of an Israeli invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over the fate of about 1.4 million civilians trapped there.

Hamas has long insisted it would release all of its hostages only as part of a deal that ends the war for good. 

Israel has said it will consider only temporary pauses, and will not end the war until it eradicates the Islamist militant group.

According to the senior source close to the talks, the draft proposal on the table is for a 40-day truce during which Hamas would free about 40 hostages – including women, those under 19 or over 50 years old, and the sick – in return for about 400 Palestinian detainees, at a 10-for-one ratio.

Israel would reposition its troops outside of settled areas. 

Gaza residents, apart from men of fighting age, would be permitted to return home to areas previously evacuated, and aid would be ramped up, including urgent housing supplies.

with AP

Reuters