Hostages' families mark 150 days since their loved ones taken

Hamas claims it needs a truce to meet Israel’s demand for list of living hostages

Another senior Hamas figure asserts ‘ball is in Israel’s court’ to reach agreement, but US says opposite is the case: ‘There is a deal on the table… Hamas just needs to take it’

Hostages' families demonstrating outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Social Media/X; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israeli and Hamas officials accused each other on Monday of stalling ongoing negotiations to secure a temporary ceasefire and the release of hostages held in Gaza, even as Egyptian and United States officials expressed cautious optimism that such a deal was forthcoming.

A Hamas official also claimed the terror group could not currently meet a key Israeli demand for a list of living hostages and that it would first need a halt to the fighting to be able to establish which captives were still alive.

Mediators and envoys from the Hamas terror group have made “significant progress” toward a truce in the Gaza Strip, Egyptian state-linked TV reported Monday, as talks in Cairo entered a second day.

However, a senior Hamas official on Monday told Lebanese outlet Al Mayadeen that “there is no real progress” in hostage talks, which he attributed to Israel’s “refusal to give clear answers regarding Hamas demands.”

Those demands — nonstarters for Israel — are a full ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, and allowing displaced Gazans to return home before the terrorist organization gives any information on the hostages it holds.

Another senior unnamed Hamas official told Arab World Press that “the ball is in Israel’s court” on the hostage talks, after the terror group presented its criteria for the Palestinian prisoners it wants to see released.

Hamas did not give names of specific prisoners, but the official said at least 20 Palestinians serving life sentences will be included.

The source added that Hamas was not pushing for an immediate return of Gazans to the north of the Strip because of the risk of overcrowding, but wants there to be an orderly, staged return of over 500 families daily throughout the ceasefire period, with the Red Cross and UNRWA being involved.

Palestinians gather in a street as humanitarian aid is airdropped in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, on March 1, 2024. (AFP)

Israel declined on Sunday to send a delegation to the current round of talks in Cairo due to Hamas’s failure to produce a list of living hostages, which Egypt and Qatar had guaranteed Israel during a previous round of talks in Paris.

Along with the United States, Egypt and Qatar have been mediating the negotiations in the almost five-month-old war between Israel and Hamas, which began with a shock assault launched by the Gaza terror group on southern Israel on October 7.

“We didn’t until now submit any list,” Hamas politburo member Basim Naim, speaking from Istanbul, said in an interview with BBC published Monday. “It is now impossible to know exactly who is still alive and who has been killed because of the Israeli bombardment or who has been killed because of starvation because of the Israeli blockade.”

He added that the hostages “are in different areas with different groups and therefore we have called for a ceasefire to be able to collect the data.”

The US State Department meanwhile reiterated its call for an immediate ceasefire, while putting the responsibility on Hamas to accept an agreement.

“There ought to be an immediate ceasefire in Gaza that brings the hostages out, that alleviates the suffering of the Palestinian people,” spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a press conference Monday, adding that “there is a deal on the table that would deliver all of those things — Hamas just needs to take it.”

Miller’s comments came after the Axios news site quoted two unnamed US officials Sunday as saying that US President Joe Biden, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi “agreed the onus is currently on Hamas to close remaining gaps in the package.”

“We still hope we can get a deal by Ramadan. The ball is in Hamas’s court,” one of the senior US officials was quoted as saying.

On Friday, Biden also acknowledged that although a deal remains elusive for now, he still hopes it will be finalized by Ramadan. “I’m hoping so, we’re still working real hard on it,” the president told reporters at the White House, adding: “We’ll get there but we’re not there yet — we may not get there.”

US President Joe Biden walks towards members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, March 1, 2024, to travel to Camp David, Maryland., for the weekend. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

An unnamed Hamas official told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday that while there is slow progress on an agreement for a temporary ceasefire and hostage deal, it seems unlikely that it will be reached before Ramadan’s start on March 10, and instead may come to fruition by the first weekend of the Muslim holy month.

Unnamed officials cited by Hebrew media on Sunday said Jerusalem suspects that Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar has no intention of reaching an agreement in the coming days, and hopes to escalate violence over Ramadan, which is usually a time of heightened tensions between Palestinians and Israel.

In such a scenario, Israel is wary of an escalation not just along its borders with Gaza and Lebanon, but also across the West Bank, where tensions are high, as well as in Jerusalem, where clashes over the Temple Mount and access to the holy site are widely expected.

Also Monday, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — whose proposal to limit the access of Arab citizens of Israel to the Temple Mount over Ramadan was rejected last week by a war cabinet wary of further stoking tensions — called to end the hostage negotiations, while accusing the terror group of  “deliberately delaying the talks, with the aim of either continuing in Ramadan or coming to a full halt because of Ramadan.”

“This foot-dragging does not advance the return of the hostages, this foot-dragging risks the safety of our soldiers, our position and our reputation, and puts us in a situation where they’re watching us slowly get weaker,” Ben Gvir said at a Knesset meeting of his ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party.

“We must intensify the war; this is the only way we’ll win,” he added.

The Knesset on Monday was also the site of a silent procession of hostages’ family members, who marked their loved ones’ 150th day in Hamas captivity.

Israelis rally for the release of hostages held in Gaza, at the Knesset on March 4, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

On October 7, thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, and take 253 hostages, while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to dismantle the Palestinian terror group, Israel launched an unprecedented ground and air campaign on the Gaza Strip, which has seen about half the Strip’s residences destroyed, displacing over a million people, many of whom face severe risk of starvation.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 30,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

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