Middle east

Progress in Hostage Release Talks Amid Israeli Escalation in Gaza

Israel will participate in talks scheduled early next week in Paris, attended by the United States, Qatar, and Egypt, despite Netanyahu's extreme statements

The White House spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that discussions led by Brett McGurk, President Joe Biden‘s envoy for hostage release and cessation of hostilities in Gaza, are “progressing well,” while Israeli sources mentioned the dispatch of an Israeli negotiating delegation to join the talks.

John Kirby said, “Our initial indicators from McGurk suggest that the discussions are progressing well,” explaining that the envoy visited Cairo on Wednesday and Israel on Thursday for meetings with the government as well as with American hostage families, noting that the talks concern “a long pause (in fighting) for the release of all hostages” and “the introduction of more humanitarian aid” into the Gaza Strip.

An informed source and reports from Israeli media indicate that Israel will participate in talks scheduled early next week in Paris, attended by the United States, Qatar, and Egypt, regarding a potential ceasefire agreement in Gaza and the release of hostages.

The latest ceasefire talks failed two weeks ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a proposal from the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) for a four-and-a-half-month ceasefire followed by an Israeli withdrawal. Netanyahu described the proposal as mere “illusion.”

Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political bureau, visited Egypt this week, seen as the strongest sign in weeks that negotiations are still ongoing.

Israeli Channel 12 television reported on Thursday that the War Cabinet had approved the dispatch of negotiators led by Israeli intelligence agency chief (Mossad), David Barnea, to Paris for talks on a potential agreement to release over 100 hostages believed to be held by Hamas.

The source said on Thursday that CIA Director William Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel will also participate in the meetings in Paris.

Earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant said in a statement, “We will expand the mandate of our negotiators regarding the hostages” as we prepare to continue intensive ground operations. Diplomatic efforts seem to be intensifying as Ramadan approaches.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Brazil, “We are intensively focused on trying to reach an agreement that would lead to the release of the remaining hostages and result in a prolonged humanitarian ceasefire.”

John Kirby, White House spokesperson for national security, said in a press conference that US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk held “constructive” meetings in Egypt and Israel, including with Netanyahu on Thursday.

Sami Abu Zuhri, head of Hamas‘s political department abroad, said, “Israel is responsible for the lack of progress and is now retracting from the conditions it had already accepted in early February for a ceasefire offer concocted by the United States and Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Paris.” He added, “The occupation is not interested in the success of any agreement and is now withdrawing from the framework established by the mediators in which it participated… Netanyahu is not interested in the prisoners issue, and all he cares about is continuing to implement the death penalty in Gaza.”

There was no immediate response from Israeli officials. Netanyahu says if Hamas shows flexibility, progress could be possible. Shortly after midnight on Friday, Hamas said Haniyeh concluded his several-day visit to Cairo, where he met Kamel.

The movement said in a statement that its delegation discussed in Egypt “the situation in the Gaza Strip, the cessation of the brutal aggression against our people, the return of the displaced to their homes, relief and shelter, especially in the northern Gaza Strip, and ways to achieve that”.

It added, “The issue of prisoner exchange was addressed, as well as the plans of the occupation regarding Al-Aqsa, in light of the occupation government’s decision to prevent our people in the West Bank and occupied inside from praying in the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan”.

Israel launched its latest military campaign on Gaza after Hamas fighters, who control the territory, invaded Israeli towns on October 7, in an attack Israel says resulted in 1200 deaths and 253 hostages taken.

Since then, around 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza according to the territory’s health authorities, with fears for thousands more buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings and whose bodies have not yet been recovered.

Hamas says it will not release the remaining hostages unless Israel agrees to end the fighting and withdraw from the territory, while Israel says it will not withdraw until Hamas is eliminated.

The territory’s Health Ministry said Israeli forces raided the Nasser medical complex in Khan Younis shortly after withdrawing from it. Khan Younis has been the main battleground in the territory since Israel attacked the city last month.

Earlier, the World Health Organization had said it wanted to evacuate about 140 patients stranded there, and Palestinian officials said the bodies of deceased patients were beginning to decompose as power cuts persisted and fighting continued.

In Rafah, where more than half of the population of the Gaza Strip, totaling 2.3 million people, resides, mourners wept in front of at least seven bodies laid on the ground outside the morgue.

Health authorities in Gaza said that at least 120 people have been confirmed killed and 130 others injured in Israeli attacks over the past twenty-four hours, but most of the casualties are still under the rubble.

An Israeli strike leveled the Al-Farouq mosque in the center of Rafah city to the ground, turning it into debris and causing neighboring building facades to collapse.

Residents described the strikes on Wednesday night as the most intense since the Israeli assault on the city ten days ago, during which Israel retrieved two hostages and caused the deaths of dozens of civilians.

The General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières, Christopher Lockyear, told the United Nations Security Council: “The surviving children of this war will carry not only the visible wounds resulting from painful injuries, but also invisible wounds.” He added, “They are subjected to repeated displacement, constant fear, and literally witness their family members being torn apart before their eyes.” He continued, “These psychological injuries have led children under the age of five to tell us that they prefer death.”

Israel threatens to launch a comprehensive attack on Rafah, the last city at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, despite international appeals, including from its main ally, Washington, to refrain from this step. Residents who have fled to Rafah from other areas say there is no other shelter to go to. The meager aid flows have almost been exhausted.

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