International mediators hopeful for Israel Hamas truce soon

International mediator in the Israel Hamas war, Qatar, expressed hope that both warring countries would reach a truce as the situation in Gaza grows dire. Picture: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

International mediator in the Israel Hamas war, Qatar, expressed hope that both warring countries would reach a truce as the situation in Gaza grows dire. Picture: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

Published Feb 28, 2024


Mediator Qatar expressed hopes Tuesday that a new truce between Israel and Hamas could be secured within days, after US President Joe Biden said a ceasefire could start next week and last through Ramadan.

As a dire humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA and the United States appealed for aid to be allowed into the war-battered Palestinian territory.

Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators have been in a protracted bid to broker a ceasefire nearly five months into the devastating war.

Negotiators are seeking a six-week pause and the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since Hamas's October 7 attack.

Several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel may also be released under the deal, media reports suggest.

"My hope is by next Monday we'll have a ceasefire" but "we're not done yet", Biden said.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said it was possible a deal could be reached by the weekend.

"We're closer today than we were yesterday," he said, adding details were still being ironed out.

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani -- whose country hosts Hamas's political leadership and helped broker a one-week truce in November -- met in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said Doha was "hopeful, not necessarily optimistic, that we can announce something" before Thursday.

"We are going to push for a pause before the beginning of Ramadan", the Muslim fasting month which starts on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar, Ansari said.

"But the situation is still fluid on the ground."

'Nothing but dust'

There has been huge international pressure for Israel to hold off on sending troops into Rafah, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinian civilians have sought refuge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that any truce would delay, not prevent, a ground invasion of Rafah in Gaza's far south, which he said was necessary to achieve "total victory" over Hamas.

Israel's military campaign has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

The Hamas attack that triggered the war resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry warned any assault on Rafah "would have catastrophic repercussions" across the region.

Ahead of the threatened ground incursion, the area has been hit repeatedly by Israeli air strikes.

Abu Khaled Zatmeh, whose nephews were killed in bombardment in Rafah, said the family had been "getting ready to eat when the strike occurred, and three floors collapsed suddenly".

"People began pulling out the martyrs, all of whom were my nephews," he told AFP.

He said there were "no more" basic supplies in the besieged territory, adding that "even if they allow people to return to the north, there are no houses left -- nothing but dust".

Gaza's health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said two babies had died of "dehydration and malnutrition" at Kamal Adwan hospital in the north.

'War must continue'

Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of the remaining hostages.

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel's far-right national security minister, said Netanyahu should not accept Hamas's "delusional requests" in negotiations, adding that "the war must continue", according to news website Ynet.

A small crowd gathered in Tel Aviv for an anti-war rally urging a ceasefire.

"I feel that there's nothing that justifies this vast killing of innocent people," said protester Michal Sapir, 58.

A Hamas source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposed 42-day truce could potentially be "renewed" and would see one Israeli hostage released every day, each in return for 10 Palestinian prisoners.

Instead of a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza -- a demand rejected by Netanyahu -- the source said the military may leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians.

In northern Gaza, desperate Palestinians searched for food, with many people eating animal fodder and even leaves.

"I have not eaten for two days," said Mahmud Khodr, a resident of Jabalia refugee camp in the north, where children roamed with empty pots. "There is nothing to eat or drink."

'Famine imminent'

Most aid trucks have been halted, but foreign armies have air dropped supplies including on Tuesday over Rafah and Gaza's main southern city Khan Yunis.

OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said aid convoys headed for northern Gaza "have come under fire and are systematically denied access to people in need".

The World Food Programme warned that "if nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza", where no humanitarian group has been able to provide aid since January 23.

Israeli officials say relief supplies have hit a logjam inside the territory.

The US Agency for International Development announced another $53 million in humanitarian assistance for Palestinians, with its head Samantha Power saying aid "has to reach people in need".

Along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, which has seen near-daily exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and Hamas ally Hezbollah, UN peacekeepers reported "an expansion and intensification of strikes".

As fierce hostilities continued Tuesday a day after a rare Israeli strike in eastern Lebanon, far from the border, UNIFIL urged de-escalation while the United States called for a "diplomatic path".

Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops killed three Palestinians in an overnight raid on the Faraa refugee camp.

Israeli police said forces shot dead a Palestinian suspect who had attempted "illegal entry" into the Jerusalem area through a breach in the West Bank barrier.