Hamas raises stakes in Gaza truce talks with Ramadan call
Hamas urged Palestinians on Wednesday to march to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque at the start of Ramadan next month, raising the stakes in negotiations for a truce in Gaza, which US President Joe Biden hopes will be in place by then.
The call by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh followed comments by Biden, broadcast on Tuesday, that there was an agreement in principle for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during Ramadan, while hostages held by the militants are released.
Biden said he hoped such an agreement, which a source said would also allow more aid into the stricken Palestinian enclave and bring the release of Palestinians prisoners, could be finalised by March 4. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is expected to begin on the evening of March 10.
Both Israel and Hamas have played down the prospects for a truce and Qatari mediators have said the most contentious issues are still unresolved.
Israel said on Monday it would allow Ramadan prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque but set limits according to security needs, setting the stage for possible clashes if crowds of Palestinians turn up and Gaza violence is still raging.
"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, who described Hamas's Oct. 7 rampage into Israel as a move to end Israeli attacks on Palestinian territories and sites.
In a televised speech, he 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 "outlandish demands".
Hamas is weighing a proposal, agreed by Israel at talks with mediators in Paris last week, for a 40-day ceasefire, which would be the first extended truce of the five-month-old war. Both sides have delegations in Qatar this week hammering out details.
A senior source close to the talks said Israeli troops would pull out of populated areas under the agreement. But it did not appear to meet Hamas's demand for a permanent end to the war and Israeli withdrawal, or resolve the fate of fighting-age Israeli men among those being held by Hamas.
HANIYEH CALLS FOR MORE SUPPORT FROM ARAB STATES
Haniyeh also called on the self-styled Axis of Resistance - allies of Iran consisting of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Yemen's Houthis, and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq - as well as Arab states, to step up their support for the Palestinians in Gaza.
"It is the duty of the Arab and Islamic nations to take the initiative to break the starvation conspiracy in Gaza," Haniyeh said, referring to what Palestinians say appears to be a deliberate policy by Israel to deny them food.
Israel says its blockade on Gaza is essential to destroy Hamas, which it sees as an existential threat since the Oct. 7 attacks, but that it is allowing in humanitarian supplies, trading blame with aid agencies for shortfalls they say have led to acute hunger.
The Israeli military said on Wednesday it had cooperated with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, France and the United States in an airdrop of food aid to southern Gaza.
The Palestinian death toll neared 30,000 on Wednesday, at 29,954, according to Gaza health officials, who say many others are buried beneath the rubble of ruined buildings across Gaza.
Israel began its assault after Hamas killed 1,200 people on Oct. 7 and seized 253 hostages, with 136 still being held, according to Israeli tallies.
On Wednesday, Israeli tanks and planes pounded northern Gaza, residents said, months after the army declared Hamas defeated there, and the government pledged to settle more Israelis among Palestinians in the West Bank, another hurdle to a peace deal.
Palestinian health officials said 18 bodies of people killed on Tuesday had been recovered in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, where several residential buildings were destroyed on Wednesday by Israeli tanks.
In the north, Israel's focus was on the suburb of Zeitoun, which has been witnessing fierce gunbattles in the past few days, despite the army's claim it had gained control of the area months ago, residents and militants said.
On Wednesday morning a man and a boy were killed in an air strike on a house in Zeitoun, medics said.
One Palestinian official with knowledge of the matter said that 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, the Palestinian official, with knowledge of effort said.
"It is early to say whether there will be an agreement soon, but things are not stalled," he said.