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Talks for Gaza ceasefire at a standstill, no deal likely by Ramadan

A ceasefire deal in Gaza that would see Israeli hostages freed and the first break in the fighting in more than three months is unlikely to happen by the start of Ramadan which the Biden administration had been aiming for, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Negotiators had hoped to have a draft agreement this week after days of meetings in Cairo, “but it won’t happen,” said one diplomat familiar with the discussions who described the last few days of talks as “very hectic.”

Two American officials agreed that the prospects are not promising of Israel and Hamas agreeing to the temporary truce by the start of the Muslim holy month early next week.

“Hope is fading,” one US official said.

A failure to achieve a deal in the next few days would come after weeks of US President Joe Biden and administration officials saying an agreement needs to be in place by Ramadan to avoid escalation of the five-month war. He warned Tuesday that without a ceasefire by then the region could become “very, very dangerous.”

Israel has also warned that if the Israeli hostages being held in Gaza aren’t home by Ramadan they will launch a military offensive into Rafah in southern Gaza where around 1.5 million Palestinians are trying to seek safety from the fighting.

Representatives from Hamas, Egypt, Qatar and the United States had gathered this week in the Egyptian capital for more talks while Israel refused to send a delegation because Hamas has not yet provided a list of hostages who are alive and dead, a recent demand by Israel.

The Biden administration insists Israel has already accepted the broad terms of a six-week pause while Hamas is holding out.

A Hamas delegation left Cairo on Thursday after days of talks with no obvious breakthrough in negotiations aimed at reaching a ceasefire in exchange for hostage releases. Egypt state-run Al Qahera news, citing a senior source, said that the delegation has left to consult on the proposals, and that negotiations will resume next week.

“It’s in the hands of Hamas right now,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday as he boarded Air Force One. He had raised hopes last week saying that a ceasefire could be in place by this past Monday, a prediction he later admitted was unlikely.

US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One in Hagerstown, Maryland, March 5, 2024. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One in Hagerstown, Maryland, March 5, 2024. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

One thing the administration and Hamas agree on is the desire for a temporary, six-week truce to turn into a permanent ceasefire without a resumption in the fighting. Biden officials have said they believe the pause could evolve into a more enduring peace, while Israel has maintained they plan to continue efforts to dismantle Hamas, particularly in Rafah.

Hope is not lost that a first phase could be launched soon, the diplomat cautioned, saying they believe an agreement could be possible in the first week or two of Ramadan.

But the deadly incident last week in which more than 100 Palestinians were killed in Gaza City when an aid convoy was mobbed and Israeli forces opened fire “took us back 10 steps,” the diplomat said. Hamas then presented a response to a negotiated framework to mediators that “no one is happy about.”

A deal, if successful, is expected to include multiple phases. In the first stage, when the fighting would stop for at least six weeks, around 40 Israeli elderly, female, sick and wounded hostages are expected to be released. In parallel, Israel would also free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisoners, a number that could be in the hundreds.

Hamas had backed off some of its more stringent demands, sources had told CNN, but following last week’s “Flour Massacre,” as it has become known, the group pushed for more assurances. Namely that in the first phase the Israeli military would pull back from Gazan cities and in a second withdraw from the enclave altogether, according to the diplomat who said the IDF is refusing to agree to those points.

Not only do Palestinians from northern Gaza need to be able to return to what is left of their homes, Hamas has argued in the talks, but do so without going through IDF checkpoints. There are demands by Hamas, the diplomat said, that specific machinery be provided to move rubble as well as field hospitals and clinics.

Hamas said its delegation left Cairo Thursday “to consult with the movement’s leadership, as negotiations and efforts continue to stop the aggression, return the displaced, and bring relief aid to our Palestinian people,” the group said in a statement.

On Wednesday Hamas argued that it had “shown flexibility” but Israel continued to “evade the obligations of the agreement” being discussed.

“We have affirmed our conditions for a ceasefire: complete [IDF] withdrawal from the sector, the return of displaced persons to the areas they left, especially in the north, and the provision of sufficient aid, relief, and reconstruction,” Hamas senior leader Osama Hamdan told a news conference in Beirut on Tuesday.

Ramadan, a month of fasting and piety for Muslims, is a “period in which you have calm and you’re able to do the essential humanitarian work,” a senior administration official told reporters in a weekend briefing.

About a quarter of Gaza’s population is on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations. The Biden administration has escalated its criticism of Israel’s refusal to open more border crossings to allow aid into Gaza, particularly to address needs in the north.

“There are no excuses,” Biden posted on X.

Displaced Palestinians receive food at a donation point in Rafah, southern Gaza, February 24, 2024. - Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images
Displaced Palestinians receive food at a donation point in Rafah, southern Gaza, February 24, 2024. - Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images

Even without a ceasefire, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, it is urgent “to dramatically increase the humanitarian assistance that’s getting to people inside of Gaza. The situation with children, women and men who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’ making inside of Gaza is unacceptable and not sustainable.”

Blinken made the comments before a meeting with Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, a central player in the ceasefire mediation. In their meeting, Blinken acknowledged that the pause and hostage deal is unlikely before the start of Ramadan, said a person familiar with the meeting.

The same person said the CIA Director Bill Burns, who has been leading the administration’s efforts in the negotiations, had a long meeting with Thani during the latter’s visit to Washington.

Bill Burns has traveled back to the Middle East, according to a US official and another source familiar with the trip.

The sources said Burns was in Egypt on Wednesday before traveling to Qatar on Thursday. Burns is not expected to stop in Israel on this trip, the US official said, nor is there expected to be a “quad” format meeting with the Egyptian and Israeli intelligence chiefs and the Qatari Prime Minister, as there was in Paris two weeks ago.

“We continue to believe that the obstacles are not insurmountable and that a deal can be reached,” State Department spokesman Matt Miller said Wednesday when asked about the lack of a breakthrough. “The deal is in the interest of Israel. It’s in the interest of the Palestinian people. And it’s in the interest of the broader region, so we’re going to continue to push for one.”

CNN’s Mostafa Salem contributed reporting.

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