US official: No significant pause in war until all women and child hostages are freed

Aligning Biden administration with Israel, Brett McGurk says 'the release of a large number of hostages' will also lead to 'a massive surge of humanitarian relief' into the Strip

US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk speaks during the IISS Manama Dialogue security conference, in Manama on November 18, 2023. (Mazen Mahdi / AFP)

MANAMA, Bahrain — US President Joe Biden’s main adviser on the Middle East said Saturday there would be not be a “significant pause” in the Israel-Hamas war until all women and children held by terrorists in Gaza are freed, aligning the administration with Israel’s position.

“The surge in humanitarian relief, the surge in fuel, the pause… will come when hostages are released,” Brett McGurk told a security conference in Bahrain.

The release of “all women, children, toddlers and babies” would result in “a significant pause… and a massive surge of humanitarian relief,” he elaborated.

The “onus is on Hamas,” McGurk said, to take steps that would lead to a pause in the fighting.

Hamas terrorists seized about 240 hostages on October 7 when they surged across Gaza’s militarized border into southern Israel to kill around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, who were massacred amid brutal atrocities at their homes and a music festival.

In response, Israel has bombarded Gaza and launched a ground offensive aimed at toppling Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, and retrieving the hostages. The Hamas-run health ministry has reported over 12,000 killed Palestinians, without differentiating between fighters and civilians. The figures cannot be verified independently and are also believed to include Palestinians killed by malfunctioning rockets launched from within the Strip.

McGurk said Biden had discussed the issue on Friday evening with the ruler of the Gulf nation of Qatar, which is leading mediation efforts toward a ceasefire and release of the hostages.

The White House said Biden and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani discussed “the urgent need for all hostages held by Hamas to be released without further delay.”

US President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in the Oval Office of the White House, January 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Two days earlier Biden had said he was “mildly hopeful” of reaching a deal to free the hostages, believed to include about 10 US citizens.

So far efforts by Qatar have led to the release of four of the hostages. A fifth hostage, a soldier, was rescued in an Israeli operation.

The Israel Defense Forces said this week it had recovered the bodies of two women hostages in Gaza.

McGurk said on Saturday that the situation in the besieged Palestinian territory was “horrific” and “intolerable.”

A senior European official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “we have to work” for the release of the hostages and to secure humanitarian pauses.

“If they go together, good. But the important thing is that both things must happen,” the official said.

Israel has refused to heed calls for a ceasefire before all the hostages are released, a stance McGurk appeared to endorse with his remarks.

“There’s no returning to October 6. That’s true for Israel. It’s true for Palestinians,” McGurk said. “No country can live with the threats of terror like what we saw from Hamas unleashed on October 7 on their border. And at the same time, Palestinians deserve need and require safety and self-determination.”

McGurk offered what he described as “five no’s” for the war: “No forced displacement, no reoccupation, no reduction in territory, no threats to Israel, no besiegement.”

He also insisted that the Palestinians had a crucial place in any possible diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“In this case, what was true before October 7 is even truer now,” McGurk said. “That central issue must be addressed. And as Hamas is degraded, we are determined to help address it.”

Families of hostages held by Hamas marching toward Jerusalem on November 16, 2023. (Yael Gadot)

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who also attended the Bahrain conference, said it was “unacceptable” to link humanitarian pauses to a hostage release.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reflected on the future of Gaza, saying “Hamas cannot be in control of Gaza anymore.”

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, “told me they are ready and willing to take this responsibility” with the help of the international community, said Borrell.

He added that Arab countries should also play a role in any future configuration, both political and economic, for Gaza.

Safadi, a vocal critic of Israel who has repeatedly condemned the military campaign against Hamas, insisted there would be “no Arab troops” deployed in Gaza.

The annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain typically focuses on Gulf Arab nations’ fears about Iran in the region. This year, however, the Israel-Hamas war has taken center stage, in part as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates reached diplomatic recognition deals with Israel in 2020.

Friday night, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa opened the summit with a call for a swap between Hamas and Israel for the hostages and a halt in the bloodshed.

“You want to call it a ceasefire. You want to call it a pause. You can call it whatever you want,” the prince said. “The intention is a break so people can take stock. People can bury their dead. People can finally start to grieve. And maybe people can start to ask themselves about the intelligence failure that led to this crisis in the first place.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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