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Hamas raises stakes in Gaza truce talks by calling for Ramadan march

Published 02/28/2024, 08:59 AM
Updated 02/28/2024, 04:02 PM
© Reuters. Soldiers sit in a military vehicle near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel, February 28, 2024. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jana Choukeir and Maayan Lubell

CAIRO/DUBAI/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Hamas called on Wednesday for Palestinians to march to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque at the start of Ramadan, raising the stakes in ongoing negotiations for a truce in Gaza, which U.S. President Joe Biden hopes will be in place by then.

The call by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh followed comments by Biden that an agreement could be reached between Israel and Hamas as soon as next week for a ceasefire during the Muslim fasting month expected to start this year on March 10.

Israel and Hamas, which both have delegations in Qatar this week hammering out details of a potential 40-day truce, have said there is still a big gulf between them, and the Qatari mediators say there is no breakthrough yet.

Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem's old city, one of the world's holiest sites for Muslims and the most sacred for Jews, has long been a flashpoint for potential violence, particularly during religious holidays.

With war raging in Gaza, Israel has said it may set limits to worship at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan, according to its security needs. Many Palestinians reject any such restrictions on their access to the site.

"This is a call on our people in Jerusalem and the West Bank to march to Al-Aqsa since the first day of Ramadan," said Haniyeh.

Israeli government spokesperson Tal Heirich described Haniyeh's remarks as "very unfortunate" and accused him of "trying to drag us to wars on other fronts".

"We certainly don't want that. We certainly will do whatever it takes to keep the calm," she said.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas's aim was to take pressure off its fighters in Gaza by forcing Israel to shift security resources to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

"We musn't give them that. On the one hand we are operating against terrorist elements and on the other hand it is our obligation to allow freedom of worship, and I think we will reach the right arrangements that would allow that."

Hamas, which precipitated the war in Gaza by attacking Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages according to Israeli tallies, has said it will not free all its captives without a comprehensive deal to end the war.

Israel, which has assaulted the Gaza Strip, killing 30,000 people according to Palestinian health authorities, says it will agree only to temporary pauses in fighting to release hostages, and will not end the war until Hamas is eradicated.

In a televised speech, Haniyeh said Hamas was showing flexibility in negotiations with Israel, but at the same time was ready to continue fighting. Israel has said any deal with Hamas would require the group to drop what Israel describes as "outlandish demands".

In the most serious push so far for an extended ceasefire, Hamas is weighing a proposal, agreed by Israel at talks with mediators in Paris last week, for a 40-day truce.

A senior source close to the talks said the Paris text would see Israeli troops pull out of populated areas, and around 40 hostages go free, including women, those under 19 or over 50 and the injured, in exchange for around 400 Palestinian detainees.

But it does not appear to meet Hamas's demand for a permanent end to the war and Israeli withdrawal, or resolve the fate of dozens of Israeli hostages who are fighting-age men.

HANIYEH CALLS FOR MORE SUPPORT FROM ARAB STATES

Haniyeh also called on the self-styled Axis of Resistance - allies of Iran including Lebanon's Hezbollah, Yemen's Houthis, and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq - as well as Arab states, to step up their support for Palestinians in Gaza suffering under Israel's assault and blockade.

"It is the duty of the Arab and Islamic nations to take the initiative to break the starvation conspiracy in Gaza," Haniyeh said.

One Palestinian official with knowledge of the ceasfire talks told Reuters mediation efforts were intensifying, but there was no certainty of success.

"Time is pressuring because Ramadan is closing in, mediators have stepped up their efforts," said the official, "It is early to say whether there will be an agreement soon, but things are not stalled," he said.

Israeli Defence Minister Gallant, asked about Biden's optimistic comments that a deal could be reached by next week, said: "Who am I to express an opinion about what the president said? I very much hope that he is right."

Food aid reaching Gaza has severely declined over the past month, and international aid agencies say residents are close to famine. Israel says its blockade on Gaza is essential in its war against Hamas and that it is allowing in humanitarian supplies.

On Wednesday, Israel said it had cooperated with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, France and the United States in an airdrop of food aid to southern Gaza.

In Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's 2.3 million population is sheltering, several masked men armed with clubs and some with guns toured the markets in what they said was a bid to keep prices in check.

Their head scarves read 'Committee of People's Protection.' A masked spokesman told reporters they were formed to back the Hamas-led interior ministry, and make sure people weren't being exploited.

© Reuters. Soldiers sit in a military vehicle near the Israel-Gaza border, February 28, 2024. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Aid agencies say the situation is most dire in the north of the Gaza Strip, which has been almost entirely cut off. Gaza's health ministry said on Wednesday that four children had died as a result of malnutrition and dehydration at northern Gaza's Kamal Adwan hospital, which had earlier said it was halting operations as it had run out of fuel.

The Israeli military said it was checking the report.

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