US says Hamas holding up 6-week ceasefire by refusing to release vulnerable hostages
Israel at warCIA chief makes covert trip to region to try and salvage talks

US says Hamas holding up 6-week ceasefire by refusing to release vulnerable hostages

Biden officials insist deal still possible amid deadlock, reveal truce would let civilians return to north Gaza; add there’s no hard deadline but want agreement before Ramadan

Hundreds donning orange balloons mark the birthday of ginger-haired hostage Kfir Bibas, in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on January 18, 2024. (Courtesy via The Times of Israel)
Hundreds donning orange balloons mark the birthday of ginger-haired hostage Kfir Bibas, in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on January 18, 2024. (Courtesy via The Times of Israel)

Senior Biden administration officials on Thursday accused Hamas of holding up a six-week ceasefire deal with Israel by refusing to release the sick, elderly and female hostages that it’s holding in Gaza.

“There could be at least a six-week ceasefire today if Hamas would agree to release a defined category of vulnerable hostages, including women, the elderly, the sick and the wounded,” said one of the officials, who all briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. “The onus right now is on Hamas.”

“The fundamental element on [Hamas’s] side is releasing the sick, the elderly and the woman. That is right now the holdup,” a second official added.

While there have been reports that Hamas has walked away from the talks in Cairo after they apparently hit a wall, the US officials insisted that a deal is still possible and that they’re still working to reach one. “We see this as the path to get the hostages home,” one of them said.

Offering new details on the deal being negotiated, the senior Biden administration officials briefing reporters said the ceasefire would start with a six-week-long first stage and be structured in a manner in which two more stages could be subsequently added.

The deal would also see the “repositioning of Israeli forces” during that first stage and also allow for Palestinians to return to northern Gaza.

This has been a sticking point for Israel, which has publicly rejected this demand to date, claiming it would allow for a resurgence of Hamas in that half of the Strip.

“We’re returning people to the north. That is part of the arrangement that has been worked out,” the official asserted.

The plan to allow Palestinians to return to northern Gaza expedites the need to improve the mechanisms for delivering humanitarian aid throughout the Strip, which is why the Biden administration is advancing a maritime corridor and other delivery mechanisms, one of the senior officials said.

One of the senior US officials acknowledged the Biden administration is working to secure a temporary ceasefire deal before Ramadan, which starts around March 10. However, they clarified that “there’s no hard and fast deadline on this negotiation.”

“We recognize that extremists could try to use Ramadan to spark something that would be deeply unfortunate in that holy month, and we want to make sure that we have a peaceful period so people can worship,” the senior official said. “We’re working that through with the Israelis, with the Palestinian Authority, with the Jordanians and others.”

“[Ismail] Haniyeh, leader of Hamas, has called for violence over Ramadan. We recognize that this is something that they might very well try to do. It’s always a volatile period… We fully recognize what [Hamas’s] intentions might be,” the official said, referring to the Hamas chief’s recent call for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to march to the Temple Mount on the first day of the Islamic holy month.

Turning to the State of the Union speech on Thursday night, the senior US official said US President Joe Biden will address Hamas’s “horrific attacks” on October 7 and “Israel’s right to go after Hamas and those responsible.”

Biden will also stress “Israel’s fundamental responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Gaza and also to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” the official said, noting the added burden faced by the IDF, given that Hamas hides and operates among civilians.

The president will also “speak to the plight of the hostages,” highlighting his efforts to broker a truce deal in November that allowed for the release of over 100 hostages. At least one of those freed hostages will be in the gallery for Biden’s speech, along with over a dozen relatives of hostages still in Gaza or of those who have been released.

“This is something we are working on constantly, not just to save the lives of the hostages and get them out, but also because this is a path to a ceasefire,” the official said.

“A ceasefire… will facilitate and enable the humanitarian surge that we’re working on. That is why [it] is first and foremost on our minds, on the President’s mind. He’ll obviously speak to that tonight,” the official added.

The sentiment was echoed earlier Thursday in remarks US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew made at a security conference in Tel Aviv.

“It’s a mistake” to think hostage negotiations have ended. “There are still conversations going on, there is still back and forth, the differences are being narrowed,” he said.

“A pause would increase the likelihood of a diplomatic solution in the north. A pause would increase the likelihood of Saudi normalization going forward,” Lew maintained.

In order for normalization to happen, however, there must be an “over the horizon” conversation about a Palestinian state, he clarified.

If the hostage issue is not resolved, he said, “I don’t know how to put the other pieces in a place where I can get them resolved,” referring to normalization with Arab countries in the region and a diplomatic solution to fighting against Hezbollah.

Turning to the “day after” the war, Lew said that the future administration of Gaza is “at the heart of every plan” for the future.

“The workforce is going to have to come from the people from the area, many of whom have worked for the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “It’s going to have to be a vetted group of people.”

He acknowledged Israelis’ discomfort in talking about a two-state solution, but indicated that the alternative would be unending violence.

Later Thursday, US Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns reportedly arrived in Qatar after quietly spending the past day in Egypt, as the Biden administration made what may be a last-ditch attempt to secure a hostage agreement before Ramadan begins at the beginning of next week.

The talks appeared to reach an impasse earlier Thursday as a Hamas delegation left Cairo without any breakthrough reported in the talks being brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the US.

Burns was not planning to make a stop in Israel during his regional tour, a US official told CNN, adding that there was also not slated to be another four-way meeting in Doha with the intelligence chiefs from the US, Egypt and Israel along with Qatar’s prime minister.

CNN said hopes were fading for a deal to be reached before Ramadan but the Walla news site said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told visiting hostage families in Washington on Wednesday that the US would continue working to secure a deal even after the holy month begins around Monday.

Sullivan told the families that the deal on the table was reasonable and that the US would continue to try and put pressure on Hamas via Egypt and Qatar over the weekend, Walla said.

An Israeli official told the Ynet news site, though, that Jerusalem’s assessment is that Hamas has made a decision to stonewall and allow the war to continue into Ramadan.

Earlier Thursday, Hamas issued a statement saying its delegation had left Cairo, but would continue with Gaza truce talks until an agreement is reached with Israel, blaming Jerusalem for the lack of progress.

An official Egyptian source told the country’s Al-Qahera News state-affiliated TV channel that negotiations over a ceasefire in Gaza reached an impasse over Hamas’s demand for a phased process culminating in an end to the war, but said talks will resume next week.

Egyptian officials had earlier said that despite the impasse, they did not rule out a deal being reached before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Sunday and has emerged as an informal deadline.

The Egyptian officials said Hamas has agreed on the main terms of such an agreement as a first stage, but wants commitments that it will lead to an eventual, more permanent ceasefire.

There was no immediate comment from Israel.

Negotiators from Hamas, Qatar and Egypt — but not Israel — have tried this week to secure a six-week ceasefire in time for Ramadan.

The deal presented to Hamas for Gaza would free at least some of the hostages the terror group still holds following the October 7 massacre in the first stage. Palestinian prisoners held in Israel would also be released.

A source had earlier said Israel was staying away from the Cairo talks because Hamas refused to provide a list of hostages who are still alive. Hamas claims this is impossible without a ceasefire as hostages are scattered across the war zone.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said Thursday that the death toll in the Gaza Strip has surpassed 30,800 since October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched a murderous rampage across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages. Hamas’s figures cannot be verified, do not differentiate between combatants and civilians, and include some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle since October.

Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Hamas officials also said Israel had on Thursday returned 47 bodies of Palestinians it killed earlier during the military offensive, through its crossing with the enclave in the southern Gaza Strip. PJC

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