Key mediator Qatar urges Israel and Hamas to do more to reach a cease-fire deal

TEL AVIV, Israel — A senior Qatari official has urged Israel and Hamas to show “more commitment and more seriousness” in cease-fire negotiations in interviews with Israeli media, as pressure builds to reach a deal that would free some Israeli hostages and bring a cease-fire in the nearly seven-month-long war in Gaza.

Qatar, which hosts Hamas headquarters in Doha, has been a key intermediary and was instrumental, along with the U.S. and Egypt, in helping negotiate a brief halt to the fighting in November that led to the release of dozens of hostages. But in a sign of frustration, Qatar this month said it was reassessing its mediator role.

An Israeli delegation is expected in Egypt in the coming days to discuss the latest proposals in negotiations, and senior Hamas official Basem Naim said in a message to The Associated Press that a delegation from the militant group will also head to Cairo for talks. He did not elaborate, but Egypt’s state-owned al-Qahera TV said the delegation would arrive on Monday.

The interviews with Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari by liberal daily Haaretz and Israeli public broadcaster Kan were published and aired Saturday evening. They came as Israel promises to invade Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah despite global concern for more than 1 million Palestinians sheltering there.

Al-Ansari expressed disappointment with Hamas and Israel, saying each side has made decisions based on political interests and not with the good of civilians in mind.

He did not reveal details of the state of talks, other than to say they have “effectively stopped,” with “both sides entrenched in their positions.”

Relations between Qatar and Israel have been strained throughout the war as some politicians in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have criticized Qatar for not putting enough pressure on Hamas. Israeli legislators have also cleared the way for the country to expel Al Jazeera, the Qatar-owned broadcaster. Qatar has no formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

Al-Ansari’s remarks came after an Egyptian delegation discussed with Israeli officials a “new vision” for a prolonged cease-fire in Gaza, according to an Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the developments.

The Egyptian official said Israeli officials are open to discussing establishing a permanent cease-fire in Gaza as part of the second phase of a deal.

“They showed willingness to do so but not commitment,” the official said. Israel has refused to end the war until it defeats Hamas.

The second phase would start after the release of civilian and sick hostages, and would include negotiating the release of soldiers, the official added. Senior Palestinian prisoners would be released and a reconstruction process launched.

Negotiations earlier this month centered on a six-week cease-fire proposal and the release of 40 civilian and sick hostages held by Hamas in exchange for freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

A letter written by U.S. President Joe Biden and 17 other world leaders urged Hamas to release the hostages immediately. Hamas in recent days has released new videos of three hostages, an apparent push for Israel to make concessions.

The growing international pressure for Hamas and Israel to reach a cease-fire deal is also meant to avert an Israeli attack on Rafah, the city on the border with Egypt where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is seeking shelter.

Palestinian girls next to a makeshift tent camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 4, 2024.
Palestinian girls next to a makeshift tent camp for displaced people in Rafah, Gaza, on April 4.Mohammed Abed / AFP – Getty Images

Israel has massed dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, The planned incursion has raised global alarm.

“Only a small strike is all it takes to force everyone to leave Palestine,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asserted to the opening session of the World Economic Forum on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.

The Israeli troop buildup may also be a pressure tactic on Hamas in talks.

Israel sees Rafah as Hamas’ last major stronghold. It vows to destroy the group’s military and governing capabilities.

Aid groups have warned that an invasion of Rafah would worsen the already desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza, where hunger is widespread. Some 400 tons of aid arrived Sunday at the Israeli port of Ashdod — the largest shipment yet by sea via Cyprus — according to the United Arab Emirates. It was not immediately clear how or when it would be delivered into Gaza.

The war was sparked by Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 into southern Israel, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, who say another 250 people were taken hostage. Hamas and other groups are holding about 130 people, including the remains of about 30, Israeli authorities say.

Israel’s retaliatory assault on Hamas has killed more than 34,000 people, most of them women and children, according to health authorities in Gaza, who do not distinguish between civilians and combatants in their tally.

The Israeli military blames Hamas for civilian casualties, accusing it of embedding in residential and public areas. It says it has killed at least 12,000 militants, without providing evidence.

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