Hamas rejects Israeli demand for information on hostages as Gaza truce effort resumes

Unresolved issues raise doubts over likelihood of truce before Ramadan, sources say

A Palestinian woman mourns victims of an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Sunday. Getty Images.
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Talks to broker a truce in Gaza before Ramadan got off to a bad start in Egypt on Sunday as Hamas refused Israel's demand for information on the estimated 130 hostages held by the militant group.

Israel wants to know the number of captives, their names and their state of health, according to sources briefed on the mediation process.

Hamas representatives told mediators that the group rejected Israel's request, the sources said.

The Hamas refusal is a serious setback to a weeks-long effort by mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar to come up with a ceasefire deal that is acceptable to both the militant group and Israel. With differences between Israel and Hamas over several other key issues still unresolved, according to the sources, the start of a truce before the holy month begins on March 10 or 11 is unlikely.

“We may realistically be looking now at the first week of Ramadan for a truce to be announced,” said one of the sources.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened not to send delegates to the talks in Cairo unless Hamas provided the information, the sources said. However, officials from Israel's Mossad spy agency were in Egypt on Sunday. US mediators were also present for the talks, they added.

A Hamas delegation led by Khalil Al Hayah, deputy leader of the group in Gaza, arrived in Egypt earlier on Sunday.

Concern over the condition of the hostages rose after a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing said last week that as many as 70 of the hostages were killed in Israeli bombardment, including seven the group had lost contact with earlier.

The Israeli request for information was relayed simultaneously to Egyptian, US and Qatari mediators at the weekend, said the sources.

Hamas has rejected previous Israeli requests to let the International Commission of the Red Cross visit the hostages and assess their condition.

The latest proposals agreed by the mediators provide for a six-week pause during which negotiations can begin on a permanent ceasefire.

They include the exchange of hostages held by Hamas for thousands of Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, a broad timeline for the reconstruction of Gaza, and the delivery of substantial humanitarian supplies and fuel to the battered territory.

The Gaza war was triggered by a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 in which about 1,200 people were killed and 240 others were taken hostage. Israel responded with a devastating air, ground and sea campaign that has to date killed more than 30,000 Palestinians and displaced the overwhelming majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents.

Hamas freed about 100 hostages and Israel reciprocated with the release of several hundred Palestinian prisoners during a week-long pause in the fighting in late November.

The sources said Israel was reluctant to agree to Hamas’s request that its forces leave the Gaza Strip at the end of a phased withdrawal. It was also objecting to the release of high-profile Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in its prisons.

Hamas continued to insist on these conditions to mediators from Qatar and Egypt on Sunday, the sources said.

Top of the list of prominent jailed Palestinians are Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader seen as a potential future leader of a unified Palestinian Authority, Ahmad Saadat, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Ibrahim Hamed, a senior Hamas military commander.

Hamas also remains adamant that the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced to leave their homes in northern Gaza and take refuge in the south must be allowed to return to the north, where temporary housing should be provided for them, the sources said on Sunday.

Israel has reportedly said it does not want military-age males to return to north Gaza.

Hopes for the first pause in fighting since the November truce rose last week after a previous round of talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt in Doha and indications from US President Joe Biden that a deal was close.

Hamas fed the optimism when it softened some of its conditions.

A senior US official said on Saturday that the framework for a six-week pause in fighting was in place, with Israel's agreement, and that it now depended on Hamas agreeing to release its hostages.

"The path to a ceasefire right now, literally at this hour, is straightforward. And there's a deal on the table. There's a framework deal. The Israelis have more or less accepted it," the official told reporters in Washington.

"The onus right now is on Hamas."

Mr Biden has said he hopes a ceasefire will be in place by the start of Ramadan. He and other world leaders are meanwhile coming under mounting pressure to ease the increasingly desperate plight of Palestinians after five months of war.

The UN says a quarter of the population – about 576,000 people – is one step from famine.

Adding to international concern is what Gaza’s health authorities said was the killing of 118 people by Israeli forces as they approached a relief convoy near Gaza city on Thursday. Israel’s military said on Sunday that most of the dead were killed in a stampede.

Mr Biden subsequently announced plans for the US to carry out air drops of food into Gaza, the first of which was conducted on Saturday in conjunction with Jordanian forces. Other nations now dropping food into central and northern Gaza include Egypt and France.

The US air drops follow months of urging Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, underlining Washington's limited influence over Mr Netanyahu's government, according to experts quoted by Reuters.

Israel denies restricting humanitarian aid for Gaza civilians.

Updated: March 04, 2024, 5:35 AM