Hamas chief claims flexibility in truce talks, calls for Ramadan march on Jerusalem

Ismail Haniyeh, Qatar-based leader of Gaza terror group, urges Iran’s allies to step up attacks on Israel

File: This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on February 13, 2024, shows Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh preparing to welcome the Iranian foreign minister in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)
File: This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on February 13, 2024, shows Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh preparing to welcome the Iranian foreign minister in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh claimed on Wednesday the Islamist terror group was showing flexibility in negotiations with Israel over a potential hostage release deal but was at the same time ready to continue fighting.

In a televised speech, Haniyeh also called on Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank to march to Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray on the first day of Ramadan on March 10, seemingly raising the stakes in the indirect talks for a truce agreement.

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, where two biblical Temples once stood, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque located there is the third-holiest site in Islam, making it a central flashpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel said on Monday it would allow Ramadan prayers at the mosque during the upcoming holy month but said there would be limits according to security needs, setting the stage for possible clashes if crowds of Palestinians take up Haniyeh’s call.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant accused Hamas on Tuesday of attempting to “take Ramadan, with an emphasis on the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, and turn it into the second phase of its plan that began on October 7.”

US President Joe Biden said Monday he hoped that a deal between Israel and Hamas would be agreed upon by next Monday, allowing for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages held by Hamas since the shock October 7 attack on Israel.

Despite Biden’s optimism, Israel and Hamas appear to be far from seeing eye-to-eye on the terms of the deal, which purportedly includes a six-week pause in fighting and the release of some 40 hostages in exchange for 400 Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel.

An unsourced Army Radio report on Wednesday morning said Hamas representatives had termed the proposed outline presented by mediators “a Zionist document,” and objected to the fact that it did not accede to Hamas’s demand for an end to the war (a nonstarter for Israel), did not include an Israeli agreement for the full return to northern Gaza of internally displaced residents, and envisaged what the group saw as too few Palestinian security prisoners being freed in return for Israeli hostages.

At the same time, Hamas has reportedly yet to provide Israel with a list of the living hostages it holds, and Israeli sources have said that negotiations cannot proceed without it.

Pictures of hostages held by terror groups in Gaza since October 7, in Tel Aviv, February 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel’s security cabinet is expected to meet on Thursday evening amid efforts to secure the deal.

Despite the slow pace of the negotiations, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi expressed hope on Wednesday afternoon that a deal would soon be reached.

“We hope that in the coming days we will reach a ceasefire and that there will be real relief for the people of Gaza,” he said, according to the Ynet news site.

In his speech, Haniyeh also called on the self-styled Axis of Resistance — consisting of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq — as well as Arab states to step up their support for the Palestinians in Gaza.

“It is the duty of the Arab and Islamic nations to take the initiative to break the starvation conspiracy in Gaza,” Haniyeh said, referring to insufficient food reaching the enclave’s residents amid UN warnings that many in the Strip are in danger of starvation.

While United Nations agencies and aid groups have said the ongoing war has made it increasingly difficult to bring vital aid to much of the coastal enclave, Israel has blamed humanitarian organizations inside Gaza, saying hundreds of trucks filled with supplies sit idle on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

Since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas, Gaza has received more than 13,830 trucks of humanitarian aid, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, said last week.

According to the update, 254,210 tons of supplies have been transferred to the Gaza Strip, including 167,080 tons of food.

A worker carries bags of humanitarian aid that entered Gaza by truck through the Kerem Shalom border crossing on February 17, 2024. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

While the war, which began on October 7 with the murderous Hamas terror assault on southern Israel, has no clear end in sight, representatives of Hamas and Fatah are expected to meet in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the formation of a unified Palestinian government and the rebuilding of Gaza, the RIA state news agency reported on Wednesday, citing the Palestinian ambassador to Russia.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov also confirmed to the news agency that such a meeting was planned.

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