Middle East Crisis : Hamas Signals No Breakthrough in Cease-Fire Talks

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Israeli tanks near the border with Gaza on Monday.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After President Biden expressed cautious optimism about the prospect of a cease-fire in Gaza by next week, Hamas on Tuesday played down suggestions that it was close to reaching an agreement with Israel.

Basem Naim, a Hamas spokesman, said in a text message that Hamas had yet to formally receive “any new proposals” since senior Israeli officials met with Qatari, Egyptian and U.S. mediators in Paris last week to advance a possible deal.

In Paris, Israeli officials discussed a proposal in which roughly 40 hostages could be freed during a roughly six-week cease-fire, which they hope to reach before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in less than two weeks. In exchange, the officials said, Israel would free Palestinian prisoners — including some serving heavy sentences for terrorism, a notable concession aimed at persuading Hamas to make a deal.

Hamas’s political leaders have long insisted publicly that any new deal to release the more than 100 hostages still being held in Gaza must lead to a permanent cease-fire. Israel has said it will not compromise on its goal of toppling Hamas in Gaza, suggesting it is not ready to declare a long-term truce despite growing international pressure to do so.

Another Hamas official, Ahmad Abdelhadi, said that the group was sticking to its demands and that leaks about the talks were designed to put pressure on Hamas to soften its position.

Hamas “is not interested in any concessions that do not lead to a complete and total cessation of the aggression against our people,” Mr. Abdelhadi said in an interview with al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese broadcaster, televised on Tuesday. “We are not interested in engaging with what’s been floated, because it does not fulfill our demands,” he added.

Qatar, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, also expressed caution on Tuesday, saying it could not comment on Mr. Biden’s view that negotiators were nearing an agreement. The talks have not reached a breakthrough, although mediators remain optimistic, said Majed al-Ansari, the spokesman for the Qatari foreign ministry.

“The efforts are ongoing, all the parties are conducting regular meetings,” Mr. Al-Ansari told reporters in Doha. “But for now, while we certainly hope it will be achieved as soon as possible, we don’t have anything in our hands so as to comment on that deadline.”

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’s political wing, met with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on Monday to discuss the negotiations. Mr. Haniyeh accused Israel of dragging its feet in the talks and warned that time was running out, according to a Hamas statement about the meeting.

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Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held since the Oct. 7 attacks gathered Saturday in Tel Aviv to call for their return.Credit…Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a major shift, Israeli negotiators have signaled that Israel could release a group of high-profile Palestinian prisoners serving lengthy jail terms in exchange for the freedom of some of the Israeli hostages still being held in Gaza, officials say.

The change in Israeli negotiating strategy, which has not been announced publicly, is significant because it could help persuade Hamas to release Israeli soldiers captured in October and agree to a deal that would temporarily pause the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

International efforts to reach a truce had stalled over Israel’s refusal to release Palestinians convicted of murder and to commit to a permanent cease-fire, two of the measures that Hamas is holding out for.

Now, Israeli negotiators have privately agreed to a U.S. proposal that would see five female Israeli soldiers released for 15 Palestinians convicted of major terrorism charges, according to two officials with knowledge of ongoing mediation efforts. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, which came during a meeting with officials from Egypt, Qatar and the United States in Paris last week.

The idea is seen as the basis for negotiations with Hamas, which has not responded to the proposal. The Israeli government had previously avoided such a concession partly because the release of Palestinians convicted of major acts of terrorism, even in exchange for Israeli hostages, would attract significant domestic criticism.

Asked about the negotiators’ position, the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, declined to comment.

Other elements of a possible deal — including the length of a cease-fire and Hamas’s demand for a complete withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Gaza — are still under discussion.

Still, the idea could add momentum to the talks, as officials race to complete a deal before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in about two weeks. An Israeli delegation was expected to arrive in Qatar as soon as Monday to continue negotiations with international mediators. According to one of the officials, Israeli intelligence officers believe that Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has become more amenable in recent weeks to a deal that, in theory, would allow for only a temporary truce — hoping that it would become permanent once in place.

The idea is part of a wider U.S. proposal that would allow for the release of 40 of the roughly 100 hostages who were captured in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks and believed still to be alive in Gaza. They include five female Israeli soldiers and civilians, including sick, wounded and older people. It does not include male Israeli soldiers, whose release will be the subject of a separate negotiation, one of the officials said.

Seven of the 35 civilian prisoners set to be released are women that Israel said should have been released during the last cease-fire and prisoner swap in November. For the release of those seven women, Israel has proposed releasing 21 Palestinian detainees, the same three-to-one ratio observed during the earlier exchange.

It would release more Palestinians for each of the remaining hostages, including six for every civilian man age 50 and older and 12 for every sick or wounded man. For each of the five female Israeli soldiers in captivity, Israel would release three “heavy” prisoners — those believed responsible for major attacks — and 15 others.

Israel has often agreed to lopsided prisoner exchanges in conflicts with Hamas. In 2011, it released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure the freedom of one captured soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.

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Jordanian planes dropped food and medical supplies with parachutes in central and southern Gaza. People were seen rowing boats to collect aid dropped into the sea.CreditCredit…Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Jordan and France airdropped food and other supplies to people in Gaza on Monday, parachuting some packages of aid into the sea, a challenging effort that underlined the desperate need in Gaza as aid groups have warned of growing restrictions on their ability to distribute supplies.

Video footage showed a cluster of parachutes falling into the sea near Deir al Balah, a city in central Gaza. Men in small boats paddled out through choppy water to retrieve the aid, watched by a crowd of hundreds who scrambled for the packages once they had reached the shore.

Alaa Fayad, a veterinary student who shot footage of the scene on the beach that he posted online, said the aid did not amount to much. “It was sad seeing people I know well running and crowding to get aid that’s not nearly enough,” he said.

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Large crowds gathered along the coast in Deir al Balah on Monday as Jordan and France airdropped food and other aid supplies, some of which ended up in the sea.CreditCredit…Alaa Fayad, via X

Three planes from the Royal Jordanian Air Force and one from its French counterpart dropped the supplies, including ready-made meals, over several sites, the Jordanian Army said in a statement. The French plane dropped more than two tons of food and hygiene supplies, the French foreign ministry said.

The amount is just a fraction of what the United Nations says is the need facing Gaza’s more than two million residents. The two tons of aid dropped by the French plane is less than a single truckload of supplies. It was not immediately clear why at least some of the aid was dropped over the sea.

Aid groups typically drop supplies by air only as a last resort, given the inefficiency and relative cost of the method compared to road deliveries, as well as the risk to people who could potentially be hit as it falls to the ground.

Still, France, which participated in an earlier airdrop, said it was ramping up its work with Jordan because Gaza’s “humanitarian situation is absolutely urgent,” according to a French foreign ministry statement.

“With a growing number of civilians in Gaza dying of hunger and disease,” the statement said, there need to be more avenues for aid deliveries, including the port of Ashdod in Israel, north of Gaza.

Jordan began airdropping aid in November and has completed more than a dozen missions since, largely to resupply its field hospitals in Gaza. At least one airdrop mission was jointly carried out with France in January, and two others delivered aid supplied by the Netherlands and Britain.

In previous airdrops, Jordan said it had coordinated its efforts with the Israeli authorities, who have insisted on inspecting all aid entering Gaza. The Israeli military confirmed that it had approved the latest airdrops and said that it had not advised the French and Jordanians to drop the aid over the sea.

Calls for internationally coordinated airdrops have intensified as aid groups simultaneously warn that the hunger crisis in Gaza is reaching a tipping point and that some obstacles to traditional aid distribution have become insurmountable.

Last week, the World Food Program suspended food deliveries to northern Gaza, saying that despite extreme needs there, it could not safely operate amid gunfire and the “collapse of civil order” in recent days. The W.F.P. and other United Nations aid agencies have repeatedly warned that their access to northern Gaza was being systematically impeded by Israeli authorities, calling on the government to ease its restrictions. Israel has denied blocking aid deliveries.

The suspension of W.F.P. deliveries in an area where they are needed most indicates that, despite their many limitations, airdrops may be one of the few viable options remaining to quickly get food to northern Gaza, according to Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East policy analyst who grew up in the enclave. Jordan’s airdrops, he said, have set a “critical precedent” for the feasibility of the approach.

“Simply wishing for a cease-fire or simply wishing for better Israeli cooperation” is not enough, Mr. Fouad Alkhatib said. “We need action right now.”

Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Nader Ibrahim contributed reporting.

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Voting in municipal elections in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit…Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel is holding local elections on Tuesday, the first time that voters have gone to the polls since the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza reshaped Israeli society and put security at the top of the national agenda.

People across the country will pick municipal and regional officials, responsible for issues like education, garbage disposal and park cleaning, in a vote delayed from Oct. 31 because of the war. Results are not expected for a few days because absentee ballots need to be tallied.

While the election will not be a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who opinion polls suggest is historically unpopular — more candidates than in previous elections are choosing not to advertise connections to his party, Likud, said Ariel Finkelstein, a researcher at the Jerusalem-based nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, which could be a sign of his declining support.

“Today the thing that concerns Israelis most is personal security,” Mr. Finkelstein said. Though responsibility for security lies with the national government, candidates have responded to the national situation by campaigning on security matters, he said.

The focus on security is a marked shift from before the war, when Israel was gripped by a political and legal crisis over Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judicial system in ways that would weaken the country’s Supreme Court.

Many leaders from the protest movement that fought the overhaul had planned to run in municipal elections, Mr. Finkelstein said. While he estimated that those candidates were still running in about 20 of the 242 local government entities holding elections today, he said the issues had changed.

Protests against Mr. Netanyahu have only recently been gathering strength after a pause in large-scale demonstrations after Oct. 7. In a poll conducted in late January by the Israel Democracy Institute, a majority of respondents said they wanted national elections to be held sooner than their scheduled date in about three years.

Mr. Netanyahu has been pushing back against the idea of holding national elections during a war. Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote on Tuesday that the local elections showed there was no need to wait to hold a national vote.

An additional reminder of the changes since Oct. 7 is that parts of the country near the borders with Lebanon and Gaza aren’t scheduled to vote until November. Most people who were living near Gaza have not returned to their homes since the attack, and areas near Lebanon have been evacuated as cross-border conflicts with the armed group Hezbollah have escalated.

Adam Sella reporting from Tel Aviv

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Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has been focused on tracking the economic implications of the war in Gaza.Credit…Anna Rose Layden for The New York Times

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said on Tuesday that she had personally urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to increase commercial engagement with the West Bank, contending that doing so was important for the economic welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Ms. Yellen’s plea was outlined in a letter that she sent to Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday. It represented her most explicit public expression of concern about the economic consequences of the war between Israel and Hamas. In the letter, Ms. Yellen said, she warned about the consequences of the erosion of basic services in the West Bank and called for Israel to reinstate work permits for Palestinians and reduce barriers to commerce within the West Bank.

“These actions are vital for the economic well-being of Palestinians and Israelis alike,” Ms. Yellen said at a news conference in Brazil ahead of a gathering of finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations.

The letter came as the cabinet of the Palestinian Authority, which administers part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, submitted its resignation on Monday in hopes that it could overhaul itself in a way that would enable it to potentially take over the administration of Gaza after the war there ends. Negotiations between Israel and Hamas are also resuming in Qatar this week as mediators from that nation, along with the United State and Egypt, work on a deal to release some hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza in exchange for Israel’s agreeing to a temporary cease-fire.

Senior Biden administration officials have been trying to mediate a resolution to the conflict in Gaza, which health authorities there say has killed approximately 29,000 Palestinians. Ms. Yellen has largely been focused on tracking the economic implications of the war and managing the sanctions that the Treasury Department has imposed on Hamas and those who are involved in its network of finances.

While the Biden administration has been concerned about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, it is increasingly worried that economic unrest in the West Bank could fuel violence and further deteriorate living standards there. The war has already taken a toll on Israel’s economy, which contracted by nearly 20 percent in the fourth quarter of last year.

Ms. Yellen’s letter emphasized the steps that the United States has taken to disrupt the financial networks of Hamas and how Israel benefits from an economically stable West Bank. She also said that the suspension of permits for workers from the West Bank had led to significant unemployment while also harming Israel’s economy.

The Treasury secretary called on Israel to ensure that tax revenue is making its way to Palestinians in the West Bank.

Since Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the Israeli government has been withholding tax revenues that it collects on behalf of Palestinians. Traditionally, that money has been distributed back to the Palestinian Authority, which used it to fund its operating budget. Israel has previously frozen and then released that tax revenue during periods of conflict with the Palestinians.

The White House national security communications adviser, John Kirby, said last month that President Biden had discussed with Mr. Netanyahu the need to ensure that the tax revenues are available to pay salaries for Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

Ms. Yellen said on Tuesday that she was encouraged that revenue was starting to make its way to the West Bank. That money has started to flow following an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian officials earlier this month to use Norway as a temporary intermediary to transfer the tax funds that Israel had frozen.

“The United States has urged the Israeli government to release clearance revenue to the Palestinian Authority to fund basic services and to bolster the economy in the West Bank,” Ms. Yellen said. “I welcome news that an agreement has been reached and funds have started to flow. This must continue.”

The Treasury secretary said that the war in Gaza had not yet had a significant impact on the global economy. The United States, she said, is continuing to explore ways to get aid to innocent Palestinians and to strengthen the economy of the West Bank.

Alan Rappeport Alan Rappeport writes about economic policy and covers the Treasury Department.

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Palestinians recovering a victim as they searched a damaged building in Rafah on Monday.Credit…Haitham Imad/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Israeli government said on Monday that it had submitted a progress report demanded by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the U.N.’s highest court, on measures it ordered Israel to take last month to prevent the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and to allow more humanitarian aid into the enclave.

The filing from Israel, whose contents were not made public, came after several human rights groups issued statements on Monday accusing Israel of violating the court’s legally binding order. Because the court does not have an enforcement mechanism, the rights groups also called on other countries to pressure Israel to comply and to stop providing it with weapons.

In an interim ruling on Jan. 26 in a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide, the court ordered Israel to immediately implement six measures to limit harm to Palestinian civilians and report back within a month. The measures included taking all steps within Israel’s power to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza and enabling the provision of “urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”

The International Federation for Human Rights said that Israel had “utterly failed” to comply with the court’s order and that violence against Palestinian civilians had “continued unabated.”

Similar condemnations were issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which cited data from the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs showing that even as the risk of famine grew, Israeli restrictions on aid distribution remained in place and the daily average number of aid trucks entering Gaza dropped significantly in the weeks after the court’s order.

“The Israeli government is starving Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians, putting them in even more peril than before the World Court’s binding order,” Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and Palestine, said in a statement.

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Palestinians receiving food aid in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accusations made by the human rights groups. It has previously denied responsibility for the lack of aid reaching civilians. The Israeli military’s top lawyer recently found “unacceptable conduct” by Israeli forces in Gaza, including some that appeared criminal, and warned commanders to prevent violations of international law that would damage Israel’s standing.

Airwars, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors civilian deaths in conflict zones, released a report on Monday that detailed “patterns of harm” for Palestinian civilians in Gaza during the two weeks following the court’s interim ruling.

Civilians in Gaza were reported killed each day during that time period, Airwars said. It identified five incidents in which civilians waiting to receive humanitarian aid were killed or injured, and six in which health care workers or emergency medical workers were killed.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, about 3,700 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since the court’s ruling on Jan. 26. The ministry said that as of Monday, more than 29,000 people had been killed since the start of the war.

Credit…Ronen Zvulun/Reuters and Leo Correa/Associated Press

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday, when the high court began to hear arguments on whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should be conscripted into the country’s military.

As throngs of protesters demanded equal military service for all, groups of Haredim — as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Hebrew — blocked a road, dancing and singing as they lobbied to remain exempt from the draft that populates Israel’s armed forces.

Most young Jews serve at least two years in the military after leaving school in Israel, but the Haredi population has long been exempt from conscription so they can study Jewish law and scripture at government-subsidized seminaries.

The Haredim for decades have fought to remain exempt, and their reluctance to serve has irritated secular Israelis who are required to protect the nation.

But as of mid-December, more than 2,000 Haredim had joined the military since the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7, reflecting a modest shift in attitudes.

Nearly 30 percent of the ultra-Orthodox public now supports the idea of military service, 20 points higher than before the war, according to a December poll by the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based research group.

The Times of Israel reported that the high court on Monday gave the Israeli government until March 24 to explain why the military should not begin drafting ultra-Orthodox students.

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