Hamas and Israel under pressure to agree on Gaza truce before Ramadan

Washington has demanded an immediate ceasefire and is pushing Israel to allow more aid into besieged enclave

Displaced Palestinians in the ruins caused by an Israeli strike in Deir Al Balah, Gaza. Bloomberg
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Israel and Hamas are coming under mounting pressure to agree to a Gaza truce that would stave off famine in the devastated Palestinian enclave, with the US now seemingly more determined than ever to secure a pause in fighting before Ramadan.

After weeks of on-and-off negotiations, mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar have so far been unable to find a formula for a truce and hostage-prisoner swap acceptable to both Israel and Hamas, with the pair still at odds over several key issues.

However, sources with direct knowledge of the latest truce talks in Egypt, which began on Sunday and continued on Monday, said that while Egypt and Qatar are pressuring Hamas to show more flexibility, the US has also been stepping up the pressure on Israel to agree to a deal.

“The Americans are now doing everything possible to get a truce agreed,” said one of the sources. “The next step will be for America to announce a ceasefire and find the means to force both sides to observe it.”

Washington is Israel's most important ally and provides billions of dollars in military assistance to the country.

While US President Joe Biden and his administration have vocally supported Israel's war in Gaza, in recent weeks they have seemingly run out of patience with repeated failed negotiations to secure a pause to the war in which more than 30,500 Palestinians have been killed in the relentless bombardment of Gaza.

The extent of US pressure to clinch a deal before Ramadan, which begins on March 10 or 11, became clear on Sunday when Vice President Kamala Harris urged Hamas to accept a deal and Israel to do more to boost aid deliveries into Gaza, where the UN has warned hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of malnutrition and starvation.

In some of the strongest comments to date by a senior member of the Biden administration on the issue, Ms Harris said: "Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire."

Speaking at an event in Selma, Alabama, she added: "There is a deal on the table, and as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal. Let's get a ceasefire.

"People in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane and our common humanity compels us to act ... the Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses."

Washington’s push for a truce in Gaza and its alarm over the dire humanitarian situation led it to airdrop relief supplies on Gaza, starting on Saturday. The airdrop was criticised in much of the Arab world for being too costly, too little and too late.

US Vice President calls for immediate six-week ceasefire in Gaza

US Vice President calls for immediate six-week ceasefire in Gaza

Sticking points remain

Despite US pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire, Israeli media reports said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government was boycotting the most recent negotiations in Cairo.

The boycott comes after Hamas reportedly rejected Israel's demand that the group provide a list of names of all hostages taken on October 7 that remain alive in captivity in Gaza.

Hamas and allied groups took about 240 hostages during the October 7 attacks on southern Israel. The group says about 70 of the hostages have died during Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

The two sides agreed to a week-long temporary truce in November, during which Hamas freed 105 hostages in return for 240 Palestinian detainees being released from Israeli prisons.

This time, the sources said Hamas wants the release of those remaining hostages who are active members of the Israeli military to be conditional on the progress of negotiations for a permanent ceasefire.

Those hostages are widely believed to include officers and at least five female soldiers.

Hamas has also remained steadfast in its demands for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and guarantees that a permanent ceasefire would follow the six-week pause proposed by mediators.

It also wants to see the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced by the fighting return to their homes in northern Gaza, where they could be provided with temporary accommodation, food and health care.

Another Hamas demand is for substantial relief supplies, including fuel, to flow into Gaza, and a stop to Israeli aerial activity over the enclave, including reconnaissance and drone flights.

The group is also pushing for the release of high-profile Palestinians who are serving long jail sentences in Israel as part of any hostage and prisoner exchange.

Updated: March 04, 2024, 9:49 PM