Friday, March 1, 2024

Joe Biden says Hamas-Israel hostage deal ‘very close’ to completion -Dlight News

Joe Biden said Israel and Hamas were “very close” to a deal that is expected to free dozens of the civilian hostages held in Gaza in return for a pause in hostilities and the release of Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday morning, the US president said the US had been “working on this intensively for weeks” and “we’re now very close, very close”.

While Biden cautioned that he did not want to discuss “details” and “nothing is done until it’s done”, he said “things are looking good at the moment” — suggesting a breakthrough was within reach.

Biden’s optimism about a deal, which is being brokered by Qatar and the US, was echoed by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Israeli troops that “I hope we’ll have good news soon”.

Israel’s security and war cabinets will convene for an unscheduled meeting on Tuesday, followed by a gathering of the entire government that would be required to vote on any potential release of Palestinian prisoners.

Speaking before the vote, Netanyahu said: “I want to make clear. We’re at war. And we’ll continue in the war . . . until we achieve all our objectives: to destroy Hamas, to return all our hostages and missing, and to ensure that from Gaza there is nothing that can threaten us in future.”

Hostages would be released “in stages”, he indicated, adding: “It’s a holy mission for all of us, and for me.” 

Ismail Haniyeh, the Qatar-based leader of Hamas, also released a short statement on Telegram, saying that the group had “delivered its response to the brothers in Qatar and the mediators, and we are close to reaching a truce agreement”.

Qatar is mediating the hostage talks that could allow for the release of as many as 50 civilians out of the more than 240 people being held by Hamas in Gaza since the militant group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.

In exchange, Israel would agree to a pause in hostilities lasting from three to five days, and release as many as 150 Palestinian women and children held in its prisons, several people close to the negotiations told the Financial Times. The pause could potentially allow a surge in humanitarian aid, which Israel has severely restricted, into the besieged enclave.

Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has handled the logistics of previous releases, also met Haniyeh in Qatar on Monday.

The fighting in Gaza has continued, with Israeli troops now operating in the vicinity of the barely functional Indonesian Hospital, near the northern edge of the strip. Nearly a dozen people died after an explosion at the hospital on Monday, local health officials said, while Israel said it responded to fire on its troops from within the hospital.

The Israel Defense Forces has also been fighting in eastern parts of Gaza City. Pockets of Hamas militants remain within the city limits, which Israeli troops have encircled and penetrated since its ground invasion began on October 27.

The IDF estimates it has eliminated two battalions of Hamas fighters, while significantly degrading the capabilities of others, with its relentless aerial bombardment, which has shielded its soldiers’ advance while destroying more than half the buildings in northern Gaza.

Israel has laid siege to Gaza since the Hamas attack that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people. Close to 13,000 people have been killed as part of Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and invasion, according to Palestinian officials.

Separately, the Israeli army said it had released celebrated poet Mosab Abu Toha, who had been detained at a Gaza checkpoint as he tried to flee south.

Toha has published essays in the New Yorker and the Financial Times since the war began, documenting the toll Israel’s bombardment has taken on civilians and his family. He was named a finalist in 2022 for the prestigious American National Book Critics Circle poetry award for a collection of poems called Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza.

Toha was detained with about 200 other people at the checkpoint on Monday, a person familiar with his detention said. He was travelling with his infant son, a US citizen, and his wife.

Israel had faced international pressure to explain his detention. The IDF said it was acting on intelligence “indicating a number of interactions several civilians and terror organisations inside the Gaza Strip” but provided no evidence for its claims.

In Lebanon, the state news agency reported a number of Israeli strikes near the border. Two journalists were among the eight people killed, as well as an 80-year-old woman.

Reporter Farah Omar and cameraman Rabih al-Maamari, who worked for pro-Hizbollah news network Al Mayadeen, were killed in a rocket strike near the town of Teir Harfa. A third civilian was also killed in the same incident.

File photo of Lebanese TV reporter Farah Omar
Reporter Farah Omar, pictured, and cameraman Rabih al-Maamari, who worked for Al Mayadeen, were killed in a rocket strike near the town of Teir Harfa © Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanon and Israel have traded fire almost every day since October 7, but the exchanges have recently increased in intensity, raising fears of a regional escalation.

Lebanon’s caretaker premier blamed Israel for the strike on the journalists, saying it was an attempt to “silence the media”. The Israeli military said it was looking into that incident.

Iran-backed Hizbollah said the journalists’ killing “will not pass without retaliation”, before launching guided missiles across the border in what it called “its first response”.

Footage taken by another journalist in the aftermath of the incident showed the Mayadeen team stationed in the garden of a building overlooking the border. During earlier live broadcasts, Omar was seen wearing a protective vest marked “press”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom advocacy group, said nearly 50 journalists were confirmed to have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, most of them Palestinians in Gaza. More journalists have been killed in this war than were killed worldwide in 2022.

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