Hamas official: 'The ball is in Israel’s court'

Egypt claims progress in hostage talks with Hamas as Sinwar said to go silent

IDF says it eliminated the Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell responsible for firing rockets at Be’eri and Hatzerim; efforts to send aid to northern Gaza continue with unclear results

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Mediators and envoys from the Hamas terror organization have made “significant progress” toward a truce in Gaza, Egyptian state-linked TV reported on Monday as the latest round of talks in Cairo entered their second day, though concerns were mounting that Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar will purposely forgo a deal in order to further destabilize the region.

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

An unnamed senior Egyptian official told Egypt’s Al-Qahera News on Monday morning that “Egypt continues its intense efforts to reach a truce before Ramadan,” the holy Muslim month beginning on March 10 or 11.

“There has been significant progress in the negotiations,” the report said after the latest talks began Sunday.

Although mediating parties have been scrambling to finalize a deal before Ramadan, an unnamed Hamas official told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday night that it seems unlikely a deal will come to fruition by then. Instead, the official said that the first weekend of the monthlong holiday was a more realistic target.

Israel did not send a negotiating team to Cairo after receiving an unsatisfactory response from Hamas on the latest framework, hammered out in Paris last weekend. The terror organization refused to address Jerusalem’s demand to provide a list of living hostages and to lock down how many Palestinian prisoners Israel must release for every hostage freed, an Israeli official said.

Hamas politburo member Basim Nail claimed in an interview with the BBC posted Monday that the reason the terror group has not drawn up a list of living hostages is because it does not know who is alive and where all the hostages are.

“We didn’t until now submit any list,” Naim said from Istanbul in a Sunday conversation. “But first of all, technically and practically, 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 claimed that the hostages “are in different areas with different groups” and said that the group would not be able to collect data on them until a ceasefire is called.

Addressing the second source of Israel’s frustration with the talks, a Hamas official told Arab World Press that “the ball is in Israel’s court” on the hostage talks and said that the group had presented the criteria for the Palestinian prisoners it wants to see released.

Hamas did not, however, give names of specific prisoners it wants to see released but the list will include at least 20 Palestinians serving life sentences, the official said.

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 in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

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

Four hostages were released prior to that and three were rescued alive by troops. The bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 31 captives and one more person has been considered missing since October 7, her fate unknown.

Hamas is also holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively, along with the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.

In addition to concerns that no framework for a deal will be deemed satisfactory by both sides, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has not made contact with the terror group’s negotiating team in over a week.

According to the report, the last time Sinwar spoke to the Hamas leadership in Qatar he said that there was no rush to secure a hostage deal, as he hoped that the continued war and the inevitable IDF operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, would cause Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab Israelis to launch an uprising inside Israel.

Unnamed officials cited by Hebrew media outlets said Jerusalem suspects Sinwar has no intention of reaching an agreement in the coming days and confirmed that they believe he hopes to escalate violence over Ramadan.

A boy on a donkey cart drives past a shop selling decorative lights and lanterns in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, as Muslims prepare for the holy fasting month of Ramadan on March 3, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (AFP)

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 already high, as well as in Jerusalem, where clashes over the Temple Mount and access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque are feared.

Meanwhile, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said on Monday that at least 30,534 Palestinians have been killed and 71,920 have been wounded in Gaza since October 7.

The terror group’s figures are unverified, don’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, and list all the fatalities as caused by Israel — even those believed to have been caused by hundreds of misfired rockets or otherwise by Palestinian fire.

Israel has said it killed some 13,000 Hamas members in Gaza fighting, in addition to some 1,000 killed in Israel in the aftermath of the terror group’s October 7 invasion.

Following the massacre in southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 253 were seized as hostages, Israel launched an aerial campaign and ground operation with the purpose of ending Hamas’s rule of the Gaza Strip, where it has been in power since 2007, and return the hostages.

On Monday, the IDF said it successfully struck and killed a group of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists who fired rockets at Be’eri and Hatzerim the previous day, within 30 minutes of the attack.

At least four long-range rockets were fired toward Hazterim near Beersheba and one projectile at Be’eri on the border, in an attack claimed by Islamic Jihad.

The IDF said the Nahal Brigade spotted the cell responsible for the attack shortly after it occurred and directed an airstrike against them.

In total, the Nahal Brigade was said by the IDF to have killed 15 gunmen in central Gaza, with sniper fire, tank shelling, and by calling in airstrikes.

Elsewhere in Gaza, the IDF said the 98th Division had encircled the Hamad Town residential complex in Khan Younis, and was carrying out raids in the area of the neighborhood.

Providing more information on the ongoing operation in the residential complex, the IDF said on Monday afternoon that there was a significant amount of Hamas infrastructure in the neighborhood, and per its intelligence assessments, many Hamas operatives fled to the area from battles in other areas of Khan Younis.

Following a large concentrated wave of airstrikes in the area on Saturday night, the division’s Givati Brigade and 7th Armored Brigade encircled the area, while the Commando Brigade began to carry out raids against Hamas sites in the neighborhood.

The IDF said troops raided Hamas weapons depots, hideout apartments and other infrastructure used by senior Hamas officials. Some 40 Hamas operatives were killed by troops in the Hamad Town area over the past day, according to the IDF.

The 7th Armored Brigade facilitated the evacuation of some 8,500 civilians from the area, the IDF said, while capturing some 85 terror suspects in the process, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives who participated in the October 7 onslaught.

“The terrorists are interrogated by the troops and provide important information for the continuation of the fighting,” the IDF said.

Troops operating in Gaza in an undated photo released by the military for publication on March 4, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said that in recent days, it has been handing out food packages to Palestinians evacuating from the Khan Younis area amid the ongoing operation, ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan.

The packages include basic food products such as flour, wheat, oil, sugar, tea, and dates, as well as a greeting card with a Quranic verse.

Military officials said the move is aimed at driving a wedge between the civilian population and Hamas.

The fight to remove Hamas from Khan Younis continues, as have efforts to increase access to humanitarian aid for civilians in north Gaza after dozens were reportedly killed as they swarmed aid trucks in Gaza City last Thursday.

To that end, a convoy of aid trucks made its way to northern Gaza on Sunday, the New York Times reported, quoting a Palestinian businessman involved in the initiative. According to the report, the convoy was sent to northern Gaza after a similar attempt on Saturday ended with just one of 16 trucks making it to its destination, the other 15 having been cleaned out in central Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp.

The report did not say how many trucks were involved in Sunday’s convoy or if any of them made it there.

Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

According to the Times, Israel has begun sending in convoys arranged by the Palestinian business community after the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA and the World Food Program said they could no longer deal with the crisis.

The Israeli Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, said on Sunday evening that 277 trucks of humanitarian aid entered Gaza, the highest number to gain access to the Strip in a single day since the start of the war.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: