'It could be very dangerous without a ceasefire by Ramadan'

Biden: Hostage deal in Hamas’s hands; we’ll know in a couple of days if it’ll happen

Israel will agree to 6-week ceasefire if Hamas releases sick, wounded, elderly and female hostages, US says, adding that truce would be used to ‘secure more enduring arrangements’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One,  March 5, 2024, in Hagerstown, Maryland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
US President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One, March 5, 2024, in Hagerstown, Maryland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

US President Joe Biden said Tuesday that “we’ll know in a couple days” whether Hamas agrees to a proposed hostage deal currently on the table, as mediators race to secure an agreement before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins early next week.

It was the second time in just over a week that Biden has tried to place a timeline on when an agreement can be reached. On February 26, he told reporters he hoped a deal could be secured by March 4, before the White House later tried to walk back the definitive nature of his comment.

In recent days, US officials have reiterated that a six-week ceasefire has been crafted to allow for the staged release of the hostages and flow of aid into Gaza, saying Israel has been a constructive player in the talks while Hamas has held them up.

“The hostage deal is in the hands of Hamas right now… There’s been a rational offer. The Israelis have agreed to it… We’ll know in a couple days if it’s going to happen,” Biden told reporters before boarding Air Force One in Maryland on Tuesday.

“There’s got to be a ceasefire because [if] we get into a circumstance where this continues through Ramadan… Israel and Jerusalem… it could be very, very dangerous,” Biden added.

Biden also reiterated that he was pressing “very hard” for Israel to allow more aid into Gaza. “There’s no excuses. None.”

Asked how his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been of late, Biden smiled and responded, “Like it’s always been.” The question came after top officials in his administration held talks in Washington the past two days with visiting war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, which reportedly infuriated the premier.

Biden’s latest remarks on a temporary ceasefire echoed ones made hours earlier by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Speaking to reporters alongside visiting Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani ahead of their meeting at the State Department, Blinken said, “We have an opportunity for an immediate ceasefire that can bring hostages home, that can dramatically increase the amount of humanitarian assistance getting to Palestinians who so desperately need it, and then also set the conditions for an enduring resolution.

“We’ll continue to press [Israel on humanitarian aid] every single day because the situation as it stands is simply unacceptable,” Blinken said.

Al-Thani met with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan later Tuesday, and the pair “underscored that the release of sick, wounded, elderly and women hostages would result in an immediate ceasefire in Gaza over a period of at least six weeks,” according to a White House readout. Those categories are believed to total around 40 hostages.

“This first phase of a ceasefire would also enable a surge of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza and provide time and space to secure more enduring arrangements and sustained calm,” the readout added.

Empty food cans pile-up as displaced Palestinians cook communal meals on a makeshift outdoor wood stove in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 5, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Negotiations continued in Cairo on Tuesday, though no Israeli team was present after Hamas refused Israel’s demand to present a list of the living hostages.

Hamas has said it doesn’t know where all the hostages are, but US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller appeared to dismiss the claim during a Tuesday press briefing.

“They took these hostages, they continue to hold them. If they continue to hold them, they must know where they are,” Miller said.

“If you are Israel, and you are in discussions about an agreement where you would see the return of a certain number of hostages, it is a fair question to Hamas to show you that they can actually deliver on that deal, show you who those hostages are and confirm that they are alive,” the spokesman continued. “We think that is very much a legitimate request by the State of Israel.”

Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Hamas has recently been “mapping out” where Israeli hostages are being held. The unsourced TV report said Israel was therefore giving “a final opportunity” for the negotiations to bear fruit.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani speak to the press in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2024. (Photo by Drew ANGERER / AFP)

Two Egyptian officials said Tuesday that Hamas presented a proposal that mediators would discuss with Israel in the coming days. One of the officials said that mediators would meet Wednesday with the Hamas delegation, which is still in Cairo.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said Tuesday that the terror group was demanding a permanent ceasefire, rather than a six-week pause, and a “complete withdrawal” of Israeli forces.

“The security and safety of our people will be achieved only by a permanent cease-fire, the end of the aggression and the withdrawal from every inch of the Gaza Strip,” Hamdan told reporters in Beirut.

Hamdan added that Hamas would “not allow the path of negotiations to be open indefinitely.”

When asked whether Hamas has a list of the surviving hostages, Hamdan said that the matter wasn’t relevant to the talks and accused Israel of using it as an excuse to avoid engaging in the negotiations.

Another senior Hamas official, Bassem Naim, said the terror organization had presented its own draft deal and was awaiting a response from Israel, adding: “Netanyahu doesn’t want to reach an agreement and the ball now is in the Americans’ court.”

People rally outside the US Embassy in Tel Aviv in support of a deal to release the hostages from Gaza, March 5, 2024. (Lior Segev/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

“The negotiations are sensitive. I can’t say there is optimism or pessimism, but we haven’t yet reached a point at which we can achieve a ceasefire,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Monday.

The war in Gaza erupted with a shock assault by Hamas on October 7, when thousands of terrorists invaded southern Israel, killed nearly 1,200 people, and took 253 hostages, while committing numerous atrocities.

Israel has said it believes 130 hostages remain in Gaza, but that 31 of them are dead, 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.

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 the risk of starvation, according to UN agencies.

Israel’s offensive aimed at destroying Hamas has killed 30,631 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. That figure 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.

Agencies contributed to this report

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