Israel is ready to pause its war in Gaza during Ramadan if a hostage deal is reached, Biden says


PTI, Feb 27, 2024, 3:41 PM IST

Israel would be willing to pause its war on Hamas in Gaza during the upcoming Muslim fasting month of Ramadan if a deal is reached to release some of the hostages held by the militants, President Joe Biden said in comments released Tuesday.

There was no immediate Israeli reaction to Biden’s comments on an emerging framework deal, brokered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, under which Hamas would free some of the dozens of hostages it holds in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and a six-week halt in fighting.

During the temporary pause, negotiations would continue over the release of the remaining hostages and additional Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

A Hamas official played down any sense of progress, saying the group wouldn’t soften its demands.

The start of Ramadan, which falls around March 10, is seen as an unofficial deadline for a cease-fire deal. The month is a time of heightened religious observance and dawn-to-dusk fasting for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Israeli-Palestinian tensions have flared in the past during the holy month.

Biden said Monday that he hopes a cease-fire deal could take effect by next week.

“Ramadan’s coming up and there has 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 in an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers”.

At the same time, Biden did not call for an end to the war, which was triggered by the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct 7, when militants killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted roughly 250 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Biden, who has shown staunch support for Israel throughout the war, left open the door to an eventual Israeli ground offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, on the border with Egypt, where more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have fled under Israeli evacuation orders.

The prospect of an invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over the fate of Gaza civilians trapped there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said a ground operation in Rafah is an inevitable component of Israel’s strategy for crushing Hamas.

This week, the military submitted for Cabinet approval operational plans for the offensive, as well as evacuation plans for civilians there.

Biden said he believes Israel has slowed its bombardment of Rafah.

“They have to and they have made a commitment to me that they’re going to see to it that there’s an ability to evacuate significant portions of Rafah before they go and take out the remainder Hamas,” he said. “But it’s a process.” Hamas official Ahmad Abdel-Hadi indicated that optimism on a deal was premature.

“The resistance is not interested in giving up any of its demands, and what is proposed does not meet what it had requested,” he told the Pan-Arab TV channel Al Mayadeen.

Hamas has previously demanded that Israel end the war as part of any deal, which Netanyahu called “delusional”.

Israel’s devastating air, sea and ground campaign in Gaza has killed more than 29,700 people, most of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, which does not distinguish between fighters and noncombatants in its count.

The fighting has obliterated large swaths of the urban landscape, displaced 80% of the battered enclave’s population and triggered a humanitarian crisis that has left a quarter of the population starving, according to the United Nations, and sparked concerns of imminent famine.

The first and only deal in the war, in late November, brought about the release of about 100 hostages – mostly women, children and foreign nationals – in exchange for about 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, as well as a brief halt in the fighting.

Roughly 130 hostages remain in Gaza, but Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.

Negotiations were still underway Tuesday in Qatar to hammer out the deal’s details. A senior official from Egypt has said the draft cease-fire deal includes the release of up to 40 women and older hostages in return for up to 300 Palestinian prisoners – mostly women, minors and older people.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said the proposed six-week pause in fighting would include allowing hundreds of trucks to bring desperately needed aid into Gaza every day, including to the hard-hit north.

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