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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gaza cease-fire talks bogged down as hunger and pressure grow

People inspect damage and recover items from their homes following Israeli air strikes, on March 4, 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. As of Thursday Feb. 29th, more than 30,000 people had been killed in Gaza since the start of the war on Oct. 7, according to the territory's health ministry. Also this week, more details have emerged of a potential new ceasefire deal that could start before Ramadan, pending further negotiations by Israel, Hamas and foreign mediators.   (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images Europe/TNS)
By Ethan Bronner Bloomberg News

Israel delayed sending a high-level delegation to Cairo for talks on a cease-fire in the war against Hamas for a second day, putting a damper on hopes for an imminent deal.

The U.S., Egypt and Qatar — the main mediators — are trying to get Israel to pause fighting in Gaza and release Palestinian prisoners in return for Hamas freeing hostages. The talks are also meant to ensure more aid gets into the devastated enclave.

Israel has said it won’t send negotiators to Cairo until Hamas gives it a list of Israeli hostages it intends to release. Israeli media also says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government wants to know about their wellbeing and how many are still alive.

The negotiations are taking place as hunger grows acute in Gaza and with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan less than a week away.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 when Hamas, an Iran-backed group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., rampaged through southern Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 and capturing 250. More than 30,000 have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s retaliatory air and ground assault, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The conflict’s roiled the Middle East, leading to other Iran-supported militias attacking Western ships in the Red Sea and U.S. bases. In one deadly drone assault, an Iraqi group killed three American soldiers in Jordan.

Hamas demands

On Sunday, a Hamas official said an agreement could be reached in a day or two if Israel accepted his organization’s demands. Some of those are unacceptable, according to Israeli officials, citing Hamas wanting its militants to return to northern Gaza and asking for too high a number of imprisoned Palestinians to be released.

U.S. officials say Israel has essentially agreed to a six-week cease-fire in exchange for some 35 hostages out of the roughly 100 still thought to be alive, a big increase in aid trucks entering the Gaza Strip and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Even if there’s a truce, Israel insists the war won’t be over. It says it still needs to destroy Hamas’s military infrastructure or else face the risk of future massacres. It continues to say a ground offensive on Rafah, a city in the south of Gaza with more than one million refugees, is necessary to root out the thousands of Hamas fighters encamped there.

Governments, including the U.S., are pushing Israel to accept a cease-fire to prevent the humanitarian crisis worsening. Last Thursday, more than 100 Gazans were killed when violence — including shooting by Israeli troops — broke out near aid trucks in northern Gaza. Israel says its forces didn’t shoot at the civilians around the trucks; doctors and witnesses in Gaza say they did.

The U.S. and Jordan have taken to air-dropping meals but officials say it’s too expensive a method to make much difference. Instead, hundreds of trucks need to get through every day, they say.

Gantz to Washington

Benny Gantz, an opposition politician who’s part of Netanyahu’s five-man war cabinet, is in Washington on Monday for talks with Vice President Kamala Harris and other officials. The U.S. is getting more impatient with the Israeli government, especially as a presidential election takes place later this year. Arab Americans and many on the left say they won’t vote for President Joe Biden because he’s not put enough pressure on Israel to stop the war.

Harris said over the weekend that while Israel must eliminate the threat posed by Hamas, Israel has to do more to protect Palestinian civilians and ensure they get adequate aid supplies.

“Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate cease-fire for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table,” she said.

Gantz, who’s now far more popular among Israelis than Netanyahu, has been attacked by some of the prime minister’s allies for the trip. The Israeli embassy in Washington has been told to the boycott his meetings, the Financial Times reported.

Still, while Gantz’s political views are more moderate than Netanyahu’s, there is little difference between them on the war. Like Netanyahu, Gantz believes that while fighting can be paused for the release of hostages, the war must continue until Hamas is destroyed as a military force.

Ramadan is likely to start on March 10. If there’s a truce by then, it means that at a time of religious fasting and family gatherings, 2 million Gazans will be given respite from the violence and gain access to greatly-needed food and medicine.