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Israel & Palestine

Hamas insists on end to Israel’s offensive in Gaza before hostage talks can begin

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: The Guardian
December 20, 2023 at 23:41
Ismail Haniyeh, political leader of Hamas, whose arrival in Egypt on Wednesday was seen as a positive sign of a possible truce. Photograph: Dalati Nohra/AP
Ismail Haniyeh, political leader of Hamas, whose arrival in Egypt on Wednesday was seen as a positive sign of a possible truce. Photograph: Dalati Nohra/AP

UN security council resolution calling for ceasefire and more aid deliveries delayed again at the request of the US

The US said “very serious” negotiations were taking place in Egypt on a new Gaza ceasefire and release of more Israeli hostages, but prospects for a deal remained uncertain as Hamas reportedly insisted it would not discuss anything less than a complete end to Israel’s offensive in the Palestinian territory.

The ongoing negotiation came as a vote in New York on a UN resolution calling for a lengthier ceasefire and more aid deliveries was delayed for a third time.

The diplomacy rolled on as the official estimate of the death toll in Gaza passed 20,000, according to the Hamas government media office, with 8,000 children and 6,200 women among the dead, and as hunger and disease threaten to add to the death rate significantly.

The arrival in Egypt of Ismail Haniyeh, a Qatar-based Hamas political leader, on Wednesday was seen as a positive sign of a possible truce, as the last time he came it was before the first deal last month which involved the release of 110 hostages and a week-long ceasefire.

A source briefed on the negotiations told the Reuters news agency that envoys were intensively discussing which of the hostages still held in Gaza could be freed in a new truce and which Palestinian prisoners Israel might release in return.

A leader of Islamic Jihad, a smaller Palestinian militant group also holding hostages in Gaza, was also expected to arrive in Egypt on Thursday for talks on which hostages would be freed in return for how many Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.


Israel and Hamas no closer to new deal to pause fighting, says Biden – video

However, the two sides remained far apart on the question over the lull in fighting to accompany a prisoner exchange. Hamas officials made clear they wanted it to mark the start of a longer truce, while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he only saw it as a short pause in a continuing military campaign to destroy Hamas militarily and as a political force in Gaza.

Taher Al-Nono, Haniyeh’s media adviser, told Reuters that Hamas was not willing to discuss releasing more Israeli hostages until Israel ends its military campaign in Gaza and the volume of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians increases.

“The issue of prisoners can be negotiated after these two matters are achieved. We cannot talk about negotiations while Israel continues its aggression. Discussing any proposal related to prisoners must occur after the cessation of aggression,” Nono said in an interview in Cairo.

“We have talked with our brothers in Egypt, outlining our stance on this aggression and the urgent need to stop it as a top priority,” Nono said.

Israel has insisted all remaining women and infirm men among the hostages be released, the source briefed on the negotiations told Reuters.

“We’re pushing it,” Joe Biden said when asked about the hostage talks, but he cautioned: “There’s no expectation at this point.”

Later in the day, the White House national security spokesperson, John Kirby, said: “These are very serious discussions and negotiations, and we hope that they lead somewhere.”

Meanwhile a resolution put forward at the UN security council by the United Arab Emirates, calling for a “suspension of hostilities” and a significant increase in aid deliveries under UN supervision, was delayed for a third time this week on the request of the US.

Diplomats at the UN said the main sticking point for Washington was clauses in the text giving the UN sole authority over monitoring of aid truck convoys, with no explicit mention of Israel’s role. Diplomats urging a compromise pointed to UN assurances that it would never send cargo into Gaza without consulting Israel, but the Biden administration wanted the consultation requirement codified in the text of the resolution, warning that it could otherwise lead to complications on the ground and backfire.


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“We continue to engage extensively and constructively with a number of countries to try to resolve some of the outstanding issues in this security council resolution,” the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

He added that the US shared the aim underlying the UAE resolution, to get more aid into Gaza, and had worked harder than any country to make sure it happened.

“We continue to work on this every day, for example making sure that once the assistance gets into Gaza, it can actually move around and be distributed safely and securely with predictable routes,” Blinken said. “We’ve been at the forefront of all of these efforts, and we want to make sure that the resolution, in what it calls for and requires, actually advances that effort and doesn’t do anything that could actually hurt the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

US officials pointed to the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing point between Israel and Gaza as a sign of progress. A 46-truck convoy, bringing more than 750 tonnes of goods from Jordan, crossed Kerem Shalom on Wednesday.

“We’re going to keep pushing for more, but this is another sign of how it was important for us to urge Israel to open up Kerem Shalom,” Kirby said. “You’re already starting to see now a tangible benefit to the people of Gaza on the ground.”

There was no sign of any letup in the Israeli offensive, with intense fighting including multiple airstrikes in northern Gaza, which Israeli forces have been claiming for several weeks is close to being subdued. In Jabaliya, the Palestinian Red Crescent said its ambulance depot had been encircled by Israeli forces, trapping 127 people inside including workers, displaced people and wounded.

There was also continued heavy combat in the south of Gaza, where Palestinian civilians were told to seek refuge at the start of the war. The focus of the fighting was in Gaza’s second city, Khan Younis, where Israeli troops have a foothold in the city centre.

As they have done for weeks, US officials expressed the hope that the impact on civilians would lessen and their plight will ease.

“It’s clear that the conflict will move, and needs to move, to a lower intensity phase, and we expect to see, and want to see, a shift to more targeted operations with a smaller number of forces, dealing with the leadership, the tunnel network, and a few other critical things,” Blinken said. “And as that happens, I think you’ll see the harm done to civilians also decrease significantly.”

The Israeli government is adamant that it will not contemplate a significant ceasefire until it has realised its war aims.

“We’re continuing the war to the end,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday. “It will continue until Hamas is destroyed – until victory, until all the goals we set are met: destroying Hamas, releasing our hostages and removing the threat from Gaza.”

“Anyone who thinks we’ll stop is unmoored from reality,” the prime minister added. “We’re raining fire on Hamas, hellfire. All Hamas terrorists, from first to last, face death. They have two options only: surrender or die.”

Ghazi Hamad, a member of the Hamas political bureau, said that the group was not looking for a brief lull just to cover an exchange.

“Israel will take the card of the hostages and after that they will start a new round of mass killing and massacres against our people,” Hamad told Al Jazeera television. “We will not play this game.”

In a further sign that the conflict could quickly ignite a wider war, Houthi forces in Yemen warned they would target US warships if they came under fire from US forces. The warning came after the US announced the formation this week of a multinational naval taskforce to counter Houthi attacks on commercial shipping, ostensibly in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Reuters contributed to this report


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