Gaza Cease-Fire Talks Bogged Down as Hunger, Pressure Grow

People inspect damage and recover items from their homes following Israeli air strikes, on March 4, 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images/TNS)

(Bloomberg News/TNS) — Israel delayed sending a high-level delegation to Cairo for talks on a cease-fire in the war against Hamas for a second day, putting a damper on hopes for an imminent deal.

The U.S., Egypt and Qatar — the main mediators — are trying to persuade Israel to pause fighting in Gaza and release Palestinian prisoners in return for the freeing of hostages by Hamas. The talks are also meant to ensure more aid gets into the devastated enclave.

Israel has said it won’t send negotiators to Cairo until Hamas provides a list of Israeli hostages it intends to release. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government also wants to know about their wellbeing and how many are still alive.

The negotiations are taking place as hunger grows acute in the Mediterranean enclave of Gaza and with the start of Ramadan less than a week away. Vice President Kamala Harris said at the weekend that while Israel must eliminate the threat posed by Hamas, the country has to do more to protect Palestinian civilians and ensure they get adequate aid supplies.

A cease-fire for at least six weeks “is what is currently on the table,” Harris said, urging Hamas to agree to the terms. “Hamas claims it wants a cease-fire. Well, there is a deal on the table, and as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal,” she said.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 when Hamas, an Iran-backed group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., rampaged through southern Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 and capturing 250. More than 30,000 have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s retaliatory air and ground assault, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, which does not differentiate between terrorists and civilians.

The conflict has rippled through the Middle East, leading to other Iran-supported militias attacking Western ships in the Red Sea and U.S. bases. In one deadly drone assault, an Iraqi group killed three American soldiers in Jordan.

Hamas demands

On Sunday, a Hamas official said an agreement could be reached in a day or two if Israel accepted his organization’s demands. Some of those are unacceptable, according to Israeli officials, citing Hamas wanting its militants to return to northern Gaza and asking for too high a number of imprisoned Palestinians to be released.

Israeli officials say the country has essentially agreed to a six-week cease-fire in exchange for some 35 hostages out of the roughly 100 still thought to be alive, a big increase in aid trucks entering the Gaza Strip and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Even if there’s a truce, Israel insists the war won’t be over. It says it still needs to destroy Hamas’ military infrastructure or else risk future massacres. It continues to say a ground offensive on Rafah, a city in the south of Gaza with more than one million refugees, is necessary to root out the thousands of Hamas fighters encamped there.

Governments, including the U.S., are pushing Israel to accept a cease-fire to prevent the humanitarian crisis worsening. Last Thursday, more than 100 Gazans were killed when violence — including shooting by Israeli troops — broke out near aid trucks in northern Gaza.

The U.S. and Jordan have taken to air-dropping meals but officials say it’s too expensive a method to make much difference. Instead, hundreds of trucks need to get through every day, they say.

Gantz to Washington

Benny Gantz, an opposition politician who is part of Netanyahu’s five-man war cabinet, is in Washington on Monday for talks with Harris and other officials. As a presidential election takes place later this year, and Arab Americans and many on the left say they won’t vote for President Joe Biden because he hasn’t put enough pressure on Israel to stop the war, Biden administration is getting more impatient with the Israeli government.

Gantz, who is now more popular among Israelis than Netanyahu, has been attacked by some of the prime minister’s allies for the trip. The Israeli embassy in Washington has been told to boycott his meetings.

Still, while Gantz’s political views are more moderate than Netanyahu’s, there is little difference between them on the war. Like Netanyahu, Gantz believes that while fighting can be paused for the release of hostages, the war must continue until Hamas is destroyed as a military force.

Ramadan is scheduled to start on March 10. If there is a truce by then, it means that 2 million Gazans will be given respite from the violence and gain access to greatly-needed food and medicine.

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