US says Israel has agreed to framework for Gaza truce, ball is in Hamas’s court

But Washington official cautions against raising expectations; Hamas delegation due in Cairo for talks; Israel indicates it won’t send team until it gets list of live hostages

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza and their supporters protest for the captives' release, in Jerusalem, March 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza and their supporters protest for the captives' release, in Jerusalem, March 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israel has essentially endorsed a framework of a proposed Gaza truce and hostage release deal, and it is now up to Hamas to agree to it, a senior US administration official said Saturday, a day before talks to reach an agreement were to resume in Egypt.

International mediators have been working for weeks to broker a deal to pause the fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins March 10. A deal would allow more aid to reach hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinians in northern Gaza who aid officials worry are under threat of famine.

The Israelis “have more or less accepted” the proposal, which includes a six-week ceasefire as well as the release by Hamas of hostages considered vulnerable, which includes the sick, the wounded, the elderly, and women, said the official.

“Right now, the ball is in the court of Hamas and we are continuing to push this as hard as we possibly can,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House to brief reporters.

“The hostages have to be released,” the official told reporters on a conference call. “The deal is basically there. But I don’t want to create expectations one way or the other.”

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a devastating attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, amid atrocities including rape and torture of victims. The thousands of attackers who breached the border from the Gaza Strip also abducted 253 people to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime and free the hostages.

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released March 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli and Hamas delegations were expected to arrive in Cairo on Sunday, two Egyptian security sources said, though another source briefed on the talks said Israel would not send a delegation until it got a full list of hostages who are still alive.

Hopes for a pause in fighting had risen after a previous round of talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt in Doha and indications from US President Joe Biden that an agreement was close.

Hamas has not backed away from its position that a temporary truce must be the start of a process towards ending the war altogether, the Egyptian sources and a Hamas official said. Israel has said it will not accept such terms.

The Egyptian sources said assurances had been offered to Hamas that the terms of a permanent ceasefire would be worked out in the second and third phases of the deal. The duration of the initial pause, a phase expected to last about six weeks, had been agreed upon, the sources said.

Hamas did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the assurances and whether they were sufficient to move forward with the six-week pause.

“When it comes to ending the war and pulling forces out of Gaza, gaps remain unbridged,” a Palestinian official familiar with mediation efforts said.

Demonstrators calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza reach Jerusalem after a four-day march to the city on March 2, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

The Egyptian security sources said mediators had raised options for winning Israel over to a permanent ceasefire deal, including approval of a security buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip and arrangements for Israel to jointly monitor Egypt’s border with Gaza.

The senior US official, who was briefed on the previous hostage negotiations, said that for its part, Israel will not take part in more talks until Hamas clarifies the number of hostages slated to go free, and how many are still alive.

Israel also wants Hamas to agree to a ratio of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for each hostage, said the source, who declined to be identified further.

“No delegation will be going to Cairo until Hamas provides answers,” the source said.

Completion of a truce deal also required an agreement on the pullback of Israeli forces from northern Gaza and a return of residents displaced to the south of the coastal enclave, the Egyptian sources said, although the US source briefed on the talks said that for Israel, the return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza was not the main holdup.

The draft proposal for a truce also included a commitment to boost humanitarian aid to the enclave, which is suffering crippling shortages of food and medicine.

Palestinians walk through the destruction from the Israeli offensive in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP/Mahmoud Essa)

Speaking to reporters about a ceasefire as he left the White House on Friday, Biden said: “We’re not there yet.”

Nevertheless, the Egyptian security sources said Egyptian and US negotiators were still confident a partial or complete agreement would be reached by the middle of next week.

Israel, Hamas, Egypt, Qatar, and the US State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening expressed pessimism that Israel and Hamas could reach a deal, accusing the terror group of continuing to stonewall Israel rather than make a good faith effort at compromise. “We face a brick wall of delusional, unrealistic Hamas demands,” said Netanyahu in a press conference at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, adding that the terrorist group “knows its demands are delusional and is not even trying to move close to an area of agreement. That’s the situation.”

He also said that he was demanding to see the names of all hostages to be released before he agreed to a hostage deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2024. (Nimrod Klikman/Pool via Flash90)

A senior Egyptian official said Egypt and Qatar were expected to receive a response from Hamas to the latest proposals during the Cairo talks scheduled to start Sunday.

Israel and Hamas previously held a one-week ceasefire in late November. The seven-day truce brought about the release of 105 civilian hostages — mostly women, children, and foreign nationals — in exchange for about 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, as well as a brief halt in the fighting

Biden had said at the beginning of the week that he expected a deal by Monday for a six-week halt in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, but has steadily walked back the timeline as mediators continue efforts to ink an agreement.

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released March 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The developments came as thousands of people converged on Jerusalem Saturday in a rally to demand that the government reach a deal to free the hostages. Families of hostages and their supporters were completing a four-day march from the south of the country to the capital where they pressed their demands for an agreement amid growing public frustration that the captives have not yet been released.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war so far. The figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed more than 13,000 Hamas operatives in addition to another 1,000 killed inside Israel on October 7. Since the start of a ground offensive in Gaza in late October, 245 IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

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