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Sunday, April 21, 2024  
09 Shawwal 1445  

Biden says Israel agrees to stop Gaza attacks for Ramazan

Warns Israel risked losing international support due to high death toll; Hamas mulls draft truce proposal
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks to US governors attending the National Governors Association winter meeting, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, US on February 23, 2024. Reuters
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks to US governors attending the National Governors Association winter meeting, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, US on February 23, 2024. Reuters

US President Joe Biden said Israel has agreed to halt military activities in Gaza for Ramadan, as Hamas studied a draft proposal for a truce which includes a pause in fighting and a prisoner-hostage exchange.

The draft proposal, which a senior source close to truce talks in Paris told Reuters would allow hospitals and bakeries in Gaza to be repaired and 500 aid trucks to enter the battered enclave every day, is the most serious attempt in weeks to end the conflict which erupted in October last year.

Ramadan is expected to begin on the evening of March 10th and end on the evening of April 9th.

“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 during an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers”.

He also warned that Israel risked losing international support due to the high death toll among Palestinians, adding that Israel had committed to make it possible for Palestinians to evacuate from Rafah in Gaza’s south before intensifying its campaign there to destroy Hamas.

Biden, whose remarks were recorded on Monday and broadcast on Tuesday, said there was an agreement in principle for a ceasefire between the two sides while hostages were released. He said he hoped to have a ceasefire in the conflict by the following Monday.

“There are too many innocent people that are being killed. And Israel has slowed down the attacks in Rafah,” Biden said, adding that a temporary ceasefire would jumpstart a process for Palestinians to have their own state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a two-state solution.

Under the draft proposal, the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages would be at a ratio of 10 to one, the senior source said.

The draft also states Hamas would free 40 Israeli hostages including women, children under 19, elderly over 50 and the sick, while Israeli would release around 400 Palestinian prisoners and will not re-arrest them, the source told Reuters.

Mediators have ramped up efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, in the hope of heading off an Israeli assault on the Gaza city of Rafah where more than a million displaced people are sheltering at the southern edge of the enclave

The presence of both sides for so-called proximity talks - meeting mediators separately but in the same city - suggested negotiations were further along than at any time since a big push at the start of February, when Israel rejected a Hamas counter-offer for a four-and-a-half-month truce.

Biden said he hoped a ceasefire would start within days. “Well I hope by the beginning of the weekend, by the end of the weekend,” he said, when asked when he expected a ceasefire to start.

“My national security adviser tells me that we’re close. We’re close. We’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire,” Biden told reporters during a visit to New York.

A US official said US negotiators had been pushing hard to get a pause-for-hostages deal by Ramadan’s beginning on March 10 and top US officials were working on the issue last week. The optimism appeared to grow out of meetings between the Israelis and Qataris, the official said.

In public, Israel and Hamas continued to take positions far apart on a possible truce, while blaming each other for delays.

After meeting Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Ismail Haniyeh, the reclusive head of Hamas, said his group had embraced efforts to find an end to the war, and accused Israel of stalling while Gazans die under siege.

“We will not allow the enemy to use negotiations as a cover for this crime,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ready for a deal, and it was up to Hamas to drop demands he described as “from another planet.”

“Obviously, we want this deal if we can have it. It depends on Hamas. It’s really now their decision,” he told US network Fox News. “They have to come down to reality.”

Al Thani’s office said Al Thani and the Hamas chief had discussed Qatar’s efforts to broker an “immediate and permanent ceasefire agreement in the Gaza Strip.”

A source told Reuters earlier that an Israeli working delegation had flown to Qatar to create an operational centre to support negotiations. Its mission would include vetting proposed Palestinian militants that Hamas wants freed in a hostage release deal, the source said.

Israel continues to maintain in public that it will not end the war until Hamas is eradicated, while Hamas says it will not free hostages without an agreement to end the war.

“We’re totally committed to wipe Hamas off the face of the Earth,” Israel’s economy and industry minister, Nir Barkat, told Reuters at a conference in the United Arab Emirates, where his presence signalled Israel’s continued acceptance by Arab states that has angered Palestinian militants.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters on Monday any ceasefire agreement would require “securing an end to the aggression, the withdrawal of the occupation, the returning of the displaced, the entry of aid, shelter equipment, and rebuilding.”

Israel is under pressure from its main ally the United States to agree on a truce soon, to head off a threatened assault on Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where over half the enclave’s 2.3 million people are sheltering, which Washington fears could become a bloodbath.

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‘We’ll go in’

Netanyahu insisted an assault on Rafah was still planned, and Israel had a plan to evacuate civilians from harm’s way. Asked if Israel would attack even if Washington asked it not to, Netanyahu said: “Well, we’ll go in. We make our own decisions, obviously, but we’ll go in based on the idea of having also the evacuation of the civilians.”

The momentum behind talks appears to have grown since Friday, when Israeli officials discussed terms of a hostage release deal in Paris with delegations from the United States, Egypt and Qatar, though not Hamas.

Since Hamas killed 1,200 people and captured 253 hostages on Oct. 7, Israel has launched an all-out ground assault on Gaza, with nearly 30,000 people confirmed killed, according to Gaza health authorities.

In a development that could have an impact on longer-term negotiations, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, which exerts limited civil control in parts of the West Bank, stepped down on Monday.

Mohammad Shtayyeh said he was resigning to allow for the formation of a broad consensus among Palestinians about political arrangements following the Gaza war.

The PA, recognised by the West as the official representative of Palestinians, lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007. Washington has called for reforms to the PA as part of an overall solution to govern Palestinian territories including Gaza after the war.

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