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US says ceasefire on table for Hamas as aid drops begin

The path to a deal, as of Saturday, is straightforward and up to Hamas, the officials said,
Last Updated 03 March 2024, 03:35 IST

By Gwen Ackerman and Josh Wingrove

Israel has essentially agreed to a six-week cease-fire if Hamas agrees to release hostages categorized as vulnerable, US officials said, after American and Jordanian planes completed an airdrop of food into Gaza.

The path to a deal, as of Saturday, is straightforward and up to Hamas, the officials said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity. The deal could take effect as soon as Saturday if Hamas agreed to the release of certain vulnerable categories of hostages, including women, those who are ill or injured, and the elderly, they said.

The ball is in Hamas’s court, according to one of the officials. Israel has essentially signed on to elements of the agreement and the framework is in place, the officials said. The six-week pause would allow a rush of humanitarian aid and would launch phase-two negotiations to extend the cease-fire, they said.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Benny Gantz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet, will meet at the White House on Monday to discuss the path ahead on Gaza, including the need for a hostage deal, according to a White House official. Gantz is also due to meet Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.

The officials spoke as questions swirl about the Israel-Hamas conflict and its impact in Gaza, where food shortages are rampant.

The US and Jordan airdropped 38,000 meals along the coast of Gaza, between 3 and 5 pm local time Saturday. The 66 total bundles of so-called MREs, or military-style meal replacements, were dropped along the coast to maximize the ability of civilians to access the aid and minimize risks of the drop. The US has said it’s planning further drops.

The combined operation included US Air Force and RJAF C-130 planes, as well as soldiers specialized in aerial delivery of supplies. Local residents reported seeing the aircraft, with a total of 66 pallets descending on small parachutes.

Biden announced Friday that the US would start the humanitarian deliveries in an effort to relieve increasingly dire conditions wrought by the Israel-Hamas war, now approaching the five-month mark.

Earlier, Reuters reported, citing Egyptian security officials, that talks between Israel and Hamas on a Gaza cease-fire are due to resume in Cairo on Sunday. Officials in Israel had no immediate comment on the report.

The US is continuing to push for ways to get more aid in, partly to do away with any incentive for gangs and criminal groups to seize and auction off aid, the officials said. The way to fight hoarding and a black market is to flood Gaza with aid, they said.

The need for food is rising throughout Gaza, and is particularly urgent in the north, the official said. The US is also looking at delivering aid by sea, either with commercial ships or US government vessels, the officials said. The goal is to maximize aid delivery by land, sea and air, they said.

The US has been working to get a deal by the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, scheduled to begin around March 10, the officials said. Talks are ongoing in Doha, they said.

Talks were at a deadlock about a month ago, one of the officials said, and US officials ramped up work with Israelis the week of Feb. 19 to reach a framework similar to the one that’s now on the table, one official said.

Biden’s comment came despite the deaths and injuries of scores of Palestinians on Thursday in an incident that involved Israeli troops opening fire near a food convoy bringing in aid. The deaths have drawn international condemnation and calls for an independent inquiry.

Israel denied its forces shot into the crowd, but Hamas said on Thursday night that it was considering putting a freeze on negotiations as a result.

The EU called the deaths of Palestinians trying to get food “unjustifiable” and demanded “an impartial international investigation on this tragic event allowing for a clear picture of the events and responsibilities.”

Biden has faced growing domestic political pressure to broker a cease-fire. About 13 per cent of voters in Tuesday’s Michigan Democratic primary declared themselves “uncommitted,” a protest movement over Gaza designed to rattle Biden’s campaign about its prospects in the crucial swing state.

More than 130 hostages are still believed to be held in Gaza, about 30 of whom are believed to be dead. The fighting began on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants infiltrated southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people as well as taking scores of hostages.

Since then, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed under heavy Israeli air and ground bombardment, according to the Health Ministry run by Hamas. The group is considered a terrorist organization by the US and EU.

Israel quit cease-fire talks in February over what it described as “delusional” demands from Hamas.

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(Published 03 March 2024, 03:35 IST)

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