US hopeful of Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal in ‘coming days’

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US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday he hoped a “firm and final agreement” on a temporary Gaza ceasefire and the release of hostages could be reached “in the coming days”, after progress in negotiations at the weekend.

Sullivan’s comments in an interview with CNN came as Israeli newspapers reported that the country’s war cabinet had approved a rough outline of a deal. Mediators previously hoped they were close to a breakthrough, only for talks to stall because of wide gaps between the positions of Hamas and Israel, but the US is pushing hard to get an agreement.

Sullivan said negotiators from the US, Israel, Egypt and Qatar had come to an “understanding” on the “basic contours” of a deal during talks in Paris, though the details still needed to be worked out.

A person briefed on the talks said progress had been made in the French capital and an Israeli technical team was due in Doha to discuss the proposal. Hamas was reviewing the Paris framework, the person added.

Indirect discussions by Egypt and Qatar with Hamas were still needed to clinch the agreement, Sullivan said, but suggested the talks could be completed soon.

“We hope that in the coming days, we can drive to a point where there is actually a firm and final agreement on this issue, but we will have to wait and see,” he said.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said indirect discussions with Hamas were still needed to clinch the deal © AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday described Hamas’s demands as “delusional” and said the militant group needed to back down from them before any progress could be made.

“Hamas started out with just crazy demands. It’s too soon to say if they’ve abandoned them. They’re not in the ballpark or even the city, they’re in another planet,” Netanyahu said during a CBS interview. “But if they come down to a reasonable situation, then yes, we’ll have a hostage deal.”

The local Hebrew newspapers that reported that the war cabinet approved a rough deal outline did not cite their sources and the Israeli government has not commented publicly on the issue.

Details remained vague, but any new deal would be likely to follow the parameters of a November hostage-for-prisoner exchange, where over 100 Israeli and foreign hostages were swapped for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Hamas’s current proposal asks for a larger number of Palestinians to be released for each hostage, including some convicted in military trials of violent crimes, Israeli newspapers reported. Prior talks have bogged down over Hamas demands that Israel accept a complete ceasefire and withdraw troops from the besieged enclave, which Netanyahu has rejected.

Any exchange would also take place under the cover of a ceasefire that would run through the holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10, and would be accompanied by an increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza.

A deal to pause the conflict would be expected to last several weeks.

The talks were held as Israel prepares to launch a new offensive in Rafah, a city near the enclave’s border with Egypt. The prospect of an assault on Rafah has raised fears of additional devastating harm to Palestinian civilians. The US, Israel’s closest ally, has warned Netanyahu not to order an attack unless he has a plan to protect civilians.

Netanyahu told CBS that the more than 1.5mn Palestinians sheltering in the south of Gaza would be told to move to the north of the strip, much of which has been already devastated by the Israeli air and ground offensive. Aid agencies have all but abandoned humanitarian assistance in the northern part of Gaza because of lawlessness and Israeli military strikes.

“There’s room for them to go north of Rafah to the place that we’ve already finished fighting in,” Netanyahu said, but also noted hostilities were still going on “in the northern part”.

Sullivan said he had “concerns” about accounts of a plan for postwar Gaza adopted by Israel last week that would create a buffer zone between Israel and the enclave and tighten Israeli control over the strip. The US has continued to support a two-state solution and objects to any shrinking of Gaza’s territory and to indefinite Israeli control over the land.

Sullivan said Israeli officials had not sent their postwar plan to him.

“We have laid out in detail both publicly and privately where we are in that and I look forward to hearing more directly from the Israeli government, what their intentions are,” he said. “From what I’ve seen in the reporting I have some concerns.”

Israel launched its incursion into Gaza after Hamas mounted a cross-border raid on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages, according to Israeli authorities. The war has claimed the lives of at least 29,500 Palestinians, according to local health authorities.

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