Israel-Hamas war: Israel and Hamas agree to a ceasefire for the release of hostages

Israel-Hamas war: Israel and Hamas agree to a ceasefire for the release of hostages

Israel’s acceptance of the terms of a hostage deal with Hamas late Tuesday reflects intense pressure from the Biden administration to reach an agreement that would free some of those held by the armed group and create potential opportunities for longer term to defuse the situation. conflict.

THE initial approval of the agreement by the Israeli cabinet came after a “secret cell” of top aides to President Biden worked furiously in recent weeks on a network of negotiations involving Qatar, Egypt and Israel, an effort hampered by communications blackouts in Gaza and a series of latest conflicts. tiny disagreements that derailed negotiations.

White House officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the five weeks of sensitive negotiations that resulted in a deal, said the agreement would include the release of three Americans: two women and a child below age. Officials said they would continue to press for the release of all American hostages.

The deal came at a time when Democrats are increasingly divided over Mr. Biden’s embrace of Israel, particularly as the number of civilians in Gaza rises and polls show the president receiving poor notes on his handling of the crisis before his re-election campaign. .

But the deal also marks the latest example of the growing rift between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s massive response to Hamas attacks, which left an estimated 12,000 people dead in Gaza. For weeks, Mr. Biden publicly and privately tried to convince the prime minister to suspend the bombing of Gaza to allow humanitarian aid to arrive and reduce civilian casualties.

Mr. Netanyahu has consistently refused to consider a large-scale halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza unless it leads to the release of the hostages.

White House officials said that in recent weeks, Mr. Biden concluded that to convince Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a suspension of fighting for a day – rather than more limited breaks of several hours at a time – the breakup should be linked to an agreement. to free hostages held captive in tunnels used by Hamas fighters.

Mr. Biden made that point with growing urgency to Mr. Netanyahu in 13 phone calls since the Hamas attacks and in a face-to-face meeting in Israel, officials said, highlighting the desire of the president to increase pressure on his counterpart. Mr. Biden’s initial whole-hearted embrace of Israel’s right to defend itself in the hours following the October 7 attacks turned into repeated calls for restraint by Israeli forces in Gaza.

President Biden greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival in Israel last month. Mr. Biden’s initial wholehearted embrace of Israel’s right to defend itself after the October 7 attacks has morphed into repeated calls for restraint.Credit…Kenny Holston/New York Times

Aides said the president also hoped that the release of the hostages could be a first step toward broader peace in the region once the immediate crisis ends. In an opinion article published in the Washington Post On Sunday, Mr. Biden outlined how his ambitions extend beyond the four-day pause in fighting agreed to on Tuesday.

“Our goal should not be simply to stop the war for today,” he wrote. “It should be about ending the war forever, breaking the cycle of incessant violence and building something stronger in Gaza and across the Middle East so that history does not repeat itself. »

Mr. Biden and his top aides have repeatedly said they will not tell Israel how to respond to the massacre of 1,200 people in their country, and Mr. Netanyahu made clear on Tuesday that he intends to resume the military operations against Hamas as soon as Hamas was killed. the hostages were released according to the agreement.

“The war will continue,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

But some senior U.S. officials indicated they would not be disappointed if the pause turned into a more permanent ceasefire. If the White House attempts to use the hostage deal to push for a longer-term ceasefire and begin to address the broader issues of the occupation and a solution to two states, it could put Mr. Biden on a new collision course with Mr. Netanyahu. when the fighting should resume.

A senior administration official, who spoke to reporters Tuesday hours before the deal was finalized, said the pause in fighting was a step toward an eventual push for peace. But the official warned that such a possibility was still far away.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a deal that had not yet been finalized.

In the short term, the president and his aides say they are working to ensure Hamas keeps promises made by the militant group during weeks of negotiations that often seemed doomed to failure.

The first sign of progress came in late October, when U.S. officials learned through intermediaries in Qatar and Egypt that Hamas might agree to a deal to free the women and children. In return, they wanted Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, suspend fighting and delay a ground invasion.

As Israeli troops massed outside Gaza, Israeli and U.S. officials debated whether to accept the deal. Israeli officials did not believe Hamas was taking the offer seriously and refused to delay the ground offensive. Hamas refused to provide any proof of the hostages’ lives. Negotiations are at a standstill.

At the White House, Mr. Biden and his foreign policy team continued to press. On November 14, hope rose again after Mr. Netanyahu called the president to tell him he could accept Hamas’s latest offer. But just hours after the call, Israeli military forces stormed Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, which they said served as a Hamas command center. Suddenly, communications between Hamas and officials in Qatar and Egypt went silent. When Hamas resurfaced a few hours later, it was clear: the deal was broken.

For several days, the militant group demanded that Israeli troops withdraw from the hospital, which Israel refused. It took several days for negotiations to resume, following a call from Mr Biden to the Emir of Qatar.

Administration officials continued to pressure Israel and, through proxies, Hamas. After Mr. Biden’s call, senior aides, including the CIA director, met with the emir in Qatar to review the latest draft – a six-page text with detailed steps for its implementation by the two parts.

In one week, diplomatic pressure bore fruit. On Tuesday evening, as the Israeli cabinet took its final vote to approve the deal, Mr. Biden left Washington for a five-day Thanksgiving holiday with his family on the island of Nantucket.

The Israeli decision, announced by Mr. Netanyahu’s office, would allow a pause of at least four days in the fighting in Gaza. If this continues, it will be the longest interruption in hostilities since the Hamas attacks on October 7 prompted Israel to begin its bombing of Gaza.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Mr. Biden pledged to work with regional leaders “to ensure this agreement is completed in its entirety.” It is important that all aspects of this agreement are fully implemented.

But even with the deal in place, Mr. Biden will face challenges ahead. There are still Americans held hostage in Gaza, and tensions in the United States and within his own party show little sign of abating.

Officials said they were fully aware that the horror for the families of those still in captivity in Gaza will only end when their loved ones return home.

For Mr. Biden, it couldn’t come soon enough.

“As president, I have no higher priority than ensuring the safety of Americans held hostage around the world,” Mr. Biden said in his statement, adding: “Today’s agreement Today should bring home additional American hostages, and I won’t stop until they are freed. all released. »

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Eric D. Eilerman

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