‘Premature’: Biden optimism on Gaza truce breakthrough met with pushback, surprise

Israeli officials say they were caught off guard by comments from US president; report suggests high-value security inmates could be released for female soldiers.

A woman rides a scooter past a graffiti calling for the return of the hostages kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel, in Kfar Saba, Israel, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (The Times of Israel: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)
A woman rides a scooter past a graffiti calling for the return of the hostages kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel, in Kfar Saba, Israel, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (The Times of Israel: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

(THE TIMES OF ISRAEL) Senior Hamas operatives on Tuesday played down comments made by US President Joe Biden suggesting that Israel and the terror group were close to a deal that would pause fighting in Gaza and allow hostages to be freed, as officials in Israel and Qatar indicated that a breakthrough had yet to be reached.

Biden’s comments Monday that the sides were “close” and could ink an agreement by March 4 came as reports suggested that Israel and Hamas were moving toward a deal that could see Israeli troops halt operations for 40 days and the terror group release 40 hostages released in exchange for some 400 Palestinian prisoners. According to one report, Israel was also considering releasing high-value detainees convicted of serious security offenses in exchange for female troops abducted on October 7.

But a Hamas official described Biden’s statement as “premature” and not reflecting the situation on the ground.

There were “still big gaps to be bridged,” another Hamas official told Reuters. “The primary and main issues of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces are not clearly stated, which delays reaching an agreement.”

Israeli officials said Biden’s comments came as a surprise and were not made in coordination with the country’s leadership.

Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said Doha could not comment on Biden’s remarks, adding that there was no breakthrough in the talks though Qatar was “pushing hard” for the agreement sketched out in Paris.

He added that Qatar was “upbeat and optimistic on Gaza mediation talks.”

Negotiations mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar were still underway Tuesday in Doha, with a Hamas official saying the group was studying a proposal that came out of a weekend summit in Paris.

Palestinian men check the rubble of the al-Faruq mosque on February 22, 2024, following an overnight Israeli air strike in Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. (The Times of Israel: Said Khatib/AFP)

A senior source close to the talks told Reuters that the draft proposal sent to Hamas was for a 40-day truce during which Hamas would free around 40 hostages — including women, those under 19 or over 50 years old, and the sick — in return for around 400 Palestinian security prisoners at a 10-to-one ratio.

Under the terms of the proposal, Israel would halt aerial reconnaissance operations over Gaza for eight hours a day, commit to allowing 500 trucks of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza per day and allow the entry of equipment and fuel to rehabilitate hospitals and bakeries. Israel would also allow in heavy machinery, equipment and fuel to remove rubble and assist with other humanitarian purposes, while Hamas would pledge to not use the machines and equipment to threaten Israel.

Israel would also redeploy forces away from densely populated areas and allow civilians to return to north Gaza, though not men of fighting age.

According to the New York Times, Israel was also considering agreeing to release 15 high-profile Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel for serious crimes in exchange for five female soldiers. There was no confirmation of the report.

Women hold torches during a march demanding the immediate release of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (The Times of Israel: AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media, said that Israel wants a deal immediately but Hamas continues to push excessive demands. They also said that Israel is insisting that female soldiers be part of the first group of hostages released under any truce deal.

Hamas official Ahmad Abdel-Hadi meanwhile said the terror group would not budge.

“The resistance is not interested in giving up any of its demands, and what is proposed does not meet what it had requested,” he told the Pan-Arab TV channel Al Mayadeen. “We will not give up on ending the war.”

Hamas has previously demanded that Israel end the war as part of any deal, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “delusional.” Jerusalem has vowed not to halt its efforts until it has dismantled the terror group in Gaza.

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, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

Abdel-Hadi charged that a leak of the draft agreement to Reuters and Biden’s comments were “psychological warfare” by the US.

Speaking on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” Monday and appearing with the comedian at a New York ice cream parlor, Biden said he hoped a ceasefire would start within days. “Well I hope by the beginning of the weekend, I mean the end of the weekend,” he said, when asked when he expected a ceasefire to start.

US President Joe Biden talks with Seth Meyers during a taping of the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in New York. (The Times of Israel: AP/Evan Vucci)

“My national security adviser tells me that we’re close. We’re close. We’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire,” Biden said.

“Ramadan’s coming up and there has been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan as well, in order to give us time to get all the hostages out,” Biden also said.

The start of Ramadan, which is expected to be around March 10, is seen as an unofficial deadline for a ceasefire deal. The month is a time of heightened religious observance and dawn-to-dusk fasting for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Israeli-Palestinian tensions have flared in the past during the holy month.

A soldier of the Yahalom unit stands outside a tunnel leading to a Hamas data center, uncovered by the IDF in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (The Times of Israel: Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst into southern Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 250 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid horrific acts of brutality and sexual assault.

In response, Israel launched a wide-scale offensive in Gaza aimed at eliminating the terror group’s military and governance capabilities and returning the hostages. Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to Hamas-run health authorities, though these 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 over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Biden, who has shown staunch support for Israel throughout the war, left open the door in his remarks for an eventual Israeli ground offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, on the border with Egypt, where more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have fled under Israeli evacuation orders.

The prospect of an invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over the fate of civilians trapped there. Netanyahu has said a ground operation in Rafah is an inevitable component of Israel’s strategy for crushing Hamas. This week, the military submitted for cabinet approval operational plans for the offensive, as well as evacuation plans for civilians there.

Biden said he believes Israel has slowed its bombardment of Rafah.

“They have to and they have made a commitment to me that they’re going to see to it that there’s an ability to evacuate significant portions of Rafah before they go and take out the remainder Hamas,” he said. “But it’s a process.”

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