Home International Warring sides still cautious after Biden says Gaza truce is close

Warring sides still cautious after Biden says Gaza truce is close

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Israel, Hamas and Qatari mediators all expressed caution on Tuesday about progress towards a truce in Gaza, after US President Joe Biden said he believed a ceasefire deal could be reached in less than a week that would halt the war for Ramadaan.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 27, 2024. Picture: Reuters, Mohammed Salem

By Samia Nakhoul, Jeff Mason and Nidal Al-Mughrabi

DUBAI/WASHINGTON/CAIRO – Israel, Hamas and Qatari mediators all expressed caution on Tuesday about progress towards a truce in Gaza, after US President Joe Biden said he believed a ceasefire deal could be reached in less than a week that would halt the war for Ramadaan.

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

According to a source close to the talks, the proposal would see militants free 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’s 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-aged 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 Ramadaan, the Muslim fasting month, which is expected to begin in two weeks, on March 10.

“Ramadaan is coming up, and there’s been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadaan, 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,” Biden said.

But Qatar, which has acted as the main mediator and is now hosting delegations from both sides to hammer out the terms of the deal, 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. We remain hopeful, not necessarily optimistic that we can announce something today or tomorrow. But we remain hopeful that we can get to some kind of agreement,” said Majed Al Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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

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 on Biden’s remarks, but unidentified officials were quoted by Israeli media as saying they too were taken off guard by the US president. Israeli news website Ynet quoted unidentified senior Israeli officials as saying they did not understand “what (Biden’s) optimism is based on”.

MIXED EMOTIONS

Hamas has consistently maintained that it would free its hostages only as part of a deal that included a way to end the conflict. Israel has said it will consider only temporary pauses, and would not end the war until the militant group which precipitated it by attacking Israeli territory on October 7 is eradicated.

According to the senior source close to the talks, the draft proposal on the table was for a 40-day truce during which Hamas would free around 40 hostages – including women, those under 19 or over 50 years old, and the sick – in return for around 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 equipment to house the displaced.

In Gaza, there were mixed emotions about the prospect of a truce stopping short of a permanent end to the war.

“We don’t want a pause, we want a permanent ceasefire, we want an end to the killing,” Mustafa Basel, a father of five from Gaza City, now displaced in Rafah, told Reuters.

“Unfortunately, people’s conditions are so grim that some may accept a pause, even (just) during Ramadaan,” he said. “They want a permanent end to the war, but the dire conditions make them want a pause even for a month or 40 days in the hope it becomes permanent.”

‘TOO MANY INNOCENT’ KILLED, BIDEN SAYS

Hamas killed 1,200 people and captured 253 hostages on October 7, by Israeli tallies, triggering a ground assault on Gaza. Health authorities in the enclave say nearly 30,000 people have been confirmed killed.

Biden told NBC that Israel risked losing international support unless it takes more steps to spare civilians. Israel has threatened to attack Rafah, the last city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, where more than half of its 2.3 million residents are hemmed in, most sleeping rough in makeshift tents or public buildings.

– REUTERS

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