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US official says Gaza pause depends on Hamas freeing hostages

A senior US official has insisted that Hamas must release a large number of hostages before there can be a “significant pause” in the Israeli offensive on Gaza or an increase in aid to the Strip, underscoring the deep divide between Washington and its Arab allies.

Brett McGurk, White House Middle East adviser, said “merely calling for a ceasefire” – as Arab states have repeatedly done – is “not a path to peace,” adding that it was Hamas’ responsibility to free its prisoners.

“The increase in humanitarian aid, the increase in fuel supplies, the pause in fighting will come when the hostages are released,” McGurk told a conference in Manama, Bahrain’s capital.

“Imagine if someone took your family members and then asked you to take them back, you had to give them XYZ; and you are advised to give them XYZ anyway, without any promise of releasing your family members.

His comments contrast sharply with those of Arab leaders who have pressured the United States to call a ceasefire. Nearly 11,500 people were killed in the Israeli attack on Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.

Senior officials from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two of Washington’s important Arab partners, sat on the same panel as McGurk and accused Israel of violating international laws.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Israel was taking “2.3 million Palestinians hostage,” a reference to the population of Gaza.

“Now is not the time to mince words. . . This is not self-defense, but a blatant aggression whose victims are innocent civilians,” Safadi said. “There is a disaster happening. . . This must stop, for the sake of the Palestinians, for the Israelis and so that the entire region can live in peace.”

On the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan “called on the international community to take a stand against all flagrant violations of international humanitarian law practiced by the Israeli occupying forces against civilians in Gaza,” according to the Saudi state. media.

Israel launched its air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip after the devastating Hamas attack on October 7, which killed around 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. The Palestinian Islamist group, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, also captured around 240 hostages.

The United States and Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political office, facilitated negotiations to secure the release of dozens of civilian hostages in a deal that would lead Israel to suspend its offensive and allow more aid in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas also wants the release of Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.

People close to the negotiations said negotiations were progressing, but they repeatedly stalled on details. These include Hamas’s request for a five-day pause while Israel proposed a shorter period; and which Palestinian prisoners should be released and where they would go, a person briefed on the talks said.

McGurk said negotiations were “intensive and ongoing.”

He added that the release of many hostages “would lead to a significant pause in the fighting and a massive increase in humanitarian aid – with hundreds and hundreds of trucks continuously entering Gaza from Egypt.”

Israel has allowed only a trickle of aid to Gaza since the start of the war, as the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip worsened.

More than 1.5 million people have been displaced and Israeli officials have said they are ready to expand the ground offensive into the southern coastal enclave, where they ordered Palestinians to flee when the ground attack began. is initially concentrated in the densely populated north of the strip.

Since the October 7 attack, Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and indicated it would not stop until it achieved its goals.

The Biden administration has strongly supported Israel’s military offensive, while calling on it to do more to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian law.

McGurk said the United States was working to bring more aid to Gaza.

But Arab officials say it is impossible to defeat Hamas, which is deeply embedded in Palestinian society, and that the suffering of Gaza residents risks sparking more militancy and fueling regional instability.

They also suggest that the United States applies double standards when it comes to Israel.

“The denial of food, medicine and fuel to Gaza is a war crime,” Safadi said. “International law must apply to everyone, the message. . . is that Israel can do what it wants.

Another senior Arab official told the Financial Times “we are very frustrated” with the United States, adding that it allows Israel to use aid as “additional leverage” to collectively punish civilians.

The official said there were concerns that the level of anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds over the suffering of Gaza residents could create threats to their internal, as well as regional, security.

“They cannot eradicate Hamas and if they do, it will pave the way for something worse, not just in Gaza, because of the suffering they will cause, the same rage they feel in Jordan, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world,” the official said. . “Israel will eventually become less secure, not more. »

The official added that the United States should be worried about “losing an entire generation of Arabs.”

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