US Middle East envoy in Cairo for Gaza ceasefire talks

Brett McGurk engaged in 'sober and serious' discussions on the issue

Protesters hold photos of hostages during a rally in Jerusalem. Getty Images
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A top US official is in the Middle East for talks aimed at securing a protracted ceasefire in Gaza in exchange for the release of the remaining hostages being held by Hamas, the White House said on Tuesday.

Middle East envoy Brett McGurk is in Cairo for talks on a potential "humanitarian pause" and other issues including the provision of more humanitarian aid to Gaza, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Axios reported on Monday that through Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Israel has proposed a two-month truce that will allow for all remaining hostages to be released. Experts say such a lengthy ceasefire would essentially signal the end of the conflict.

"Certainly one of the things [Mr McGurk] is in the region talking about is the potential for another hostage deal, which would require a humanitarian pause of some length to get that done," Mr Kirby said.

Mr Kirby said he did not want to predict the likelihood of a deal being struck but noted that talks were "sober and serious".

“If that would give us the opportunity to get hostages and get more aid in, we would absolutely support a humanitarian pause of longer length,” he added, without specifying the duration.

Mr Kirby said that Mr McGurk's agenda during his trip will include gaining an assessment of Israel's military operations and its efforts to protect civilians, as well as wider regional issues, such as efforts to reach a normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In November, the US, Egypt, Qatar and Israel negotiated a seven-day pause in the fighting, during which more than 100 hostages being held by Hamas were released in exchange for about 200 Palestinian detainees being held in Israeli prisons.

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About 130 hostages, most of them Israeli, are still being held in Gaza.

But efforts to bring about another pause in the fighting and the release of the remaining hostages have failed so far.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a deal presented by Hamas that would have led to the hostages being released in exchange for Israel's complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Pressure is mounting on world leaders to push for an end to the fighting, as Israeli bombardments have killed more than 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them children, and much of the coastal enclave has been reduced to rubble.

The territory's 2.3 million residents, the majority of whom have been squeezed into the area of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, face a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis.

For weeks, protesters have gathered outside Mr Netanyahu's residence demanding he secure the release of the remaining hostages.

Government and private analysts predict a ceasefire will happen sometime between now and the third week of February, said Michael Knights, a Middle East expert and the Jill and Jay Bernstein fellow at the Washington Institute.

This is due to the fact that there is little terrain remaining in Gaza that the Israeli military has not already seized.

“It’s a finite amount of physical space we’re talking about now,” Mr Knights told The National. “It’s very obvious that the Israelis, at the present rate, are going to control the entire surface area of the Gaza Strip within two weeks.”

He also noted that the relationship between the Israeli government and the Biden administration has become tense as US domestic opposition to the war grows.

“Everyone’s reaching the end of their tether but luckily, the Israelis are also reaching the end of their operations,” he said, adding that any two-month ceasefire would inevitably become permanent.

Israeli soldiers laugh and clap as forces bomb neighbourhood in eastern Khan Younis – video

Israeli soldiers laugh and clap as forces bomb neighbourhood in eastern Khan Younis

Israeli soldiers laugh and clap as forces bomb neighbourhood in eastern Khan Younis
Updated: January 23, 2024, 8:58 PM