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Biden’s positive comments on negotiations discounted by Israel, Hamas, others involved

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JERUSALEM — President Biden said Israel has agreed to pause fighting in Gaza during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, just two weeks away, but both Israel and Hamas sought Tuesday to downplay any progress toward a deal.

Biden, who has dispatched top officials to the region and Europe in recent weeks to push for a cease-fire, said Monday he hoped that such a pause could start as soon as next week. In his appearance on late-night television, however, Biden appeared to preempt Israeli officials on the timeline.

“There’s been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan … in order to give us time to get all the hostages out,” Biden said during a surprise appearance on the talk show “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on Biden’s remarks.

Biden says temporary cease-fire in Gaza could come next week

Biden’s tight embrace of Israel has hurt him politically among young voters, progressives, people of color and Arab Americans — and on the eve of the Michigan primary.

Israel in recent days has signaled a willingness to engage more seriously on efforts led by the United States, Egypt and Qatar to reach a weeks-long cease-fire in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of many of the more than 100 remaining hostages being held in the enclave. An Israeli delegation arrived in Doha, Qatar, on Monday for “lower-level technical talks,” a Western diplomat told The Washington Post.

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Speaking on “Fox & Friends” on Monday, Netanyahu said “we’re there” on the terms of a deal but that Hamas continues to make “outlandish demands.”

“Obviously, we want this deal if we can have it,” he said. “It depends on Hamas — it’s really now their decision. I think the ground has been laid, but they have to enter the ballpark.”

Israeli officials have made clear that any deal that emerges from the ongoing talks will not end the war.

Current discussions center on a proposal for a weeks-long pause in fighting that would involve the release of between 35 and 40 Israeli hostages, an Israeli official told The Post. In exchange, according to a former Egyptian official with knowledge of the negotiations, Israel would release about 400 Palestinian prisoners, an average ratio of 10 prisoners for each hostage. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate talks.

Israel launched its war after Hamas and allied militants streamed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages.

Israel wants female soldiers to be among the captives released in this group, but Hamas aims to hold onto them as a bargaining chip for a subsequent deal, the former Egyptian official said. Hamas has asked for Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the United Nations to be guarantors of any agreement, so that Israel does not resume attacks as soon as the hostages are handed over.

Hamas is pushing for the release of a number of high-profile Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including Marwan Barghouti, Ahmad Saadat and Abdullah Barghouti. But if Israel agrees, the former Egyptian official said, it wants to send these leaders into exile rather than back to the West Bank.

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Despite the gaps that remain between the two sides, Egypt is optimistic that a breakthrough can be reached by early next week, the former official added.

Hamas leader hiding in Gaza, but killing him risks hostages, officials say

The Israeli official, though, was more circumspect.

“If the conditions that Israel requested were accepted, the deal would have happened today,” the official said. “But right now there is no deal, and the deadline is not Monday or Tuesday. I don’t believe we’re as close to a deal.”

Talks collapsed earlier this month after Netanyahu accused Hamas of making “delusional demands” in a three-stage cease-fire proposal, which included the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. Netanyahu has also faced pressure from far-right politicians — key allies holding together his government — who oppose a deal.

Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political bureau, said in a statement Monday that the militant group is willing to negotiate and has shown “great seriousness and flexibility,” but he said that Israel is “stalling.”

A Hamas official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject, told The Post on Tuesday that Hamas has “received a paper, which is not a draft agreement, but rather ideas for discussion.”

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Another Hamas representative, Ahmad Abdul Hadi in Lebanon, told Arab media outlet Al-Mayadeen that the group “will not compromise on any of its demands as the proposal does not satisfy them.”

The Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehiya Sinwar, is very much part of the negotiations, according to the Israeli official. However, one Western diplomat familiar with the process said it can take up to three days for messages to travel from Doha to the tunnels underneath Gaza where he is believed to be located.

Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for the Qatari Foreign Ministry, also sought to downplay the progress of the talks taking place in Doha. “We are optimistic in light of the continuing talks between the parties, but there is no special development that can be announced,” he said in a news conference Tuesday, adding that “the efforts are ongoing” to reach a deal.

The White House hopes to secure a pause in the fighting — and a desperately needed reprieve for Gaza’s civilians — before Ramadan, a time of fasting and celebration for Muslims around the world but historically a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ramadan is expected to begin around March 10.

The start of the holy month has loomed as a de facto deadline for a cease-fire deal, particularly after Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, said earlier this month that “if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, to include the Rafah area.”

More than 1.4 million Gaza residents are sheltering in Rafah, a small city along the border with Egypt. Many have been displaced multiple times by fighting farther north and were instructed by Israel to seek refuge there. But as Israel wraps up its operations in the southern city of Khan Younis, officials say they intend to turn the military’s focus to Rafah next.

Top U.S. officials have said they would not support launching a ground offensive in Rafah without a “credible” plan for the safe evacuation of civilians there. Netanyahu told “Fox & Friends” that an “evacuation and humanitarian assistance” plan for civilians in Rafah was presented at a meeting of his security cabinet on Sunday.

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But experts and aid organizations say such an evacuation would be impossible, given the number of people who would need to be relocated and the widespread devastation left by nearly five months of Israeli attacks across much of the Gaza Strip.

The warnings are a sign of growing international pressure on Israel to end or ratchet down its campaign in Gaza, which has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians and injured more than 70,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Hamas also faces growing pressure from civilians in Gaza who are displaced and desperate as the catastrophic humanitarian situation there pushes many toward starvation.

“We are determined to halt the war; there’s nothing else we desire at this moment,” said Nada al-Ramlawi, a 28-year-old displaced mother who is sheltering with her son and other relatives in Rafah.

“Politicians, particularly Palestinian leaders, discuss truces and cease-fires as if we’re in a state of normalcy, oblivious to the ongoing loss of life,” she added. “What are they waiting for?”

Basil Rajab, 45, who, along with his family, was displaced from Gaza City to Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, accused Hamas leaders in exile of failing civilians in the enclave.

“While they live comfortably in Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon, we endure hunger, destitution and death. Who advocates for us? Who protects us?” he said. “We’re trapped in a vicious cycle, navigating through uncertainty in search of sustenance and security. Our longing to return to our homes, to reclaim our former lives, is profound. Can this aspiration be realized? I cannot say, but it’s what we fervently desire.”

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Sarah Dadouch in Amman, Jordan, and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.



Source: Washington Post

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