In letter, Biden urges Egypt, Qatar leaders to press Hamas

Israeli official: Mediators putting ‘no pressure’ on Hamas, Sinwar doesn’t want deal

Senior official denies Israel has received terror group’s response to its latest ceasefire-for-hostages proposal, following report that Hamas turned it down

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

Posters of Israelis held hostage by Hamas are seen on the wall of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Posters of Israelis held hostage by Hamas are seen on the wall of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The mediators of hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas are failing to exert any pressure on the terror group, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Friday.

Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar “is dragging his feet and does not want a deal, despite Israel’s tremendous flexibility,” the senior Israeli official claimed.

“No pressure [on Hamas] is being jointly applied by the Qatar-led mediators. Qatar has refrained from deporting the Hamas leaders it hosts, nor has it closed their bank accounts, which hold hundreds of millions of dollars used for terrorism,” the senior Israeli official asserted.

“Sinwar does not want a deal. He is not interested in the suffering of his people in Gaza,” the official continued. “He is waiting for tensions to increase and for there to be further escalation.”

The senior official also said Jerusalem has still not received any answer from Hamas to Israel’s latest hostage deal proposal, after CNN reported earlier Friday that the terror organization turned it down.

Citing a diplomat familiar with the talks, the American cable network said the latest Israeli proposal did not meet Hamas’s demands for the unrestricted return of Palestinians to northern Gaza and a complete withdrawal of IDF troops from the Strip. It also reported that Israel insisted on inspections of those returning to the north and refused to pull out from central Gaza.

“They refused and asserted it doesn’t include any reply to their asks,” the diplomat said, adding Hamas believes “that [the] Israeli proposal includes nothing new, so they see no need to change their proposal.”

Yahya Sinwar (C), Hamas’s Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Also Friday, a senior administration official told The Times of Israel that US President Joe Biden wrote to the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, calling on them to press Hamas to agree to a hostage deal with Israel.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private letters, said Biden’s national security adviser will meet Monday with family members of some of the estimated 100 hostages who are believed to still be in Gaza.

The letters to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, came as Biden deployed CIA Director Bill Burns to Cairo for talks this weekend about the hostage crisis. The negotiations in Cairo are also due to be attended by Israel’s Mossad Director David Barnea and Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

The Hamas side of the talks is indirect, with proposals relayed through third parties to Hamas leaders hiding in tunnels beneath Gaza.

White House officials have said negotiating a pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas to facilitate the exchange of hostages held in Gaza for Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel is the only way to put a temporary ceasefire into effect and boost the flow of badly needed humanitarian aid into the territory.

However, the administration has drifted away from the message in recent weeks, sometimes issuing statements and allowing a UN Security Council resolution to pass that hadn’t directly conditioned a ceasefire on a hostage deal.

The senior administration officials said Biden discussed the upcoming round of hostage talks in Cairo this weekend with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their call Thursday.

This combination photo shows US President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo)

Biden “made clear that everything must be done to secure the release of hostages, including American citizens, now held by Hamas terrorists for nearly six months,” the official said.

“They discussed the importance of fully empowering Israeli negotiators to reach a deal, which in its first phase would secure the release of women, elderly, sick and wounded hostages,” the senior US official added.

“This basic fact remains true: There would be a ceasefire in Gaza today had Hamas simply agreed to release this vulnerable category of hostages – the sick, wounded, elderly and young women,” the official continued. “Holding these innocent people is outrageous and a reminder as to how this war started in the first place. The onus is on Hamas to release the hostages and bring relief to the people of Gaza through a prolonged ceasefire.”

“Nobody on President Biden’s team will rest until the hostages are returned to their families,” the official said.

During a press briefing Friday, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Biden told Netanyahu the day before to empower his negotiators in Cairo so that a deal can be reached as soon as possible.

“Let’s get a deal in place so that we can get a ceasefire for a matter of weeks in place, so that it’s easier to meet those commitments on humanitarian assistance being increased,” Kirby told reporters on Friday.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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