White House, Arab states ramp up talks to free Gaza hostages

Children gathered at the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday. (Photo: Reuters)
Children gathered at the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Top negotiators are set to meet in an effort to secure another hostage release as Israel threatens to escalate the conflict in the strip.

The White House and Arab states are ramping up efforts to broker a deal that would pause the fighting in Gaza and free hostages held by Hamas, with Washington dispatching a top official to Israel Thursday at a time when the war is on the brink of escalation.

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk is set to meet with Israeli officials a day after holding talks in Cairo with Egyptian officials who are leading negotiations with Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. In a possible sign the talks are gathering momentum, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns is also expected to meet senior leaders from the Middle East in the coming days, regional officials said. Burns was instrumental in securing a weeklong cease fire in November that freed more than 100 Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

The talks come at a critical moment in the war in Gaza, with Israel threatening to invade Rafah, the Gaza Strip’s southernmost city where more than a million Palestinian civilians are sheltering, and fears rising for the safety of Israeli hostages. Israel has said it must attack the area to pursue Hamas fighters hiding there, but Palestinian leaders, aid groups and Western officials have warned any attack on the densely-populated area could result in deaths and destruction among the civilians there.

Burns’s meeting is tentatively scheduled to take place Friday in Paris, the officials said. Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, and Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani are expected to attend the talks, regional officials said. Mossad chief David Barnea is invited but Israel hasn’t confirmed his participation in the talks, regional officials said.

The four leaders last met in Paris in January in a summit where they agreed on a formula for a six-week cease fire that could be extended to become a permanent one.

The cease-fire talks are key to President Biden, who faces rising criticism from within his own party over continued weapons deliveries to Israel and the mounting death toll in Gaza. Biden is up for re-election this year, and the American public is divided over the war, with some in his own party also pressuring him to maintain the position of strong support for Israel that he adopted immediately after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

More than 29,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, have been killed in Gaza since the war began in October, according to Palestinian health officials, whose figures don’t distinguish between combatants and civilians. Israeli bombing has reduced much of the strip to rubble and the war has sparked a crisis in which many of the strip’s 2.3 million residents are facing the risk of starvation.

Israel launched its attack on Gaza in response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, the deadliest in the country’s history, which killed 1,200 people, most of them Israeli civilians. The attack included mass killings in small Israeli communities next to Gaza and partygoers at a music festival.

On Thursday three gunmen opened fire near a checkpoint on a major highway near Jerusalem, killing one person and injuring eight others, according to Israeli police, the latest in a series of deadly attacks on civilians since the start of the war. Israel’s internal security service identified the attackers as Palestinians from the area of Bethlehem.

The attackers arrived in two cars and opened fire on a traffic jam on the highway between the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, according to Israeli police. Security forces said they killed two gunmen at the site of the attack and later located and killed a third who had tried to escape.

Biden has expressed growing frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the conduct of the war in Gaza, but has so far ruled out imposing curbs on weapon deliveries to Israel to coerce a change in Israeli policy. The administration has instead adopted an approach of offering Israel incentives.

The talks come after Hamas said it was willing to lower its demands for the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants released in the deal to 3,000, according to Egyptian officials. The group had previously demanded all women and children prisoners along with prisoners sentenced to life terms. The group is still demanding the release of those serving long jail sentences in terrorism-linked cases, the officials said.

A key remaining roadblock in the talks is the duration of the cease fire. Hamas is demanding that talks toward a permanent cease fire would start immediately once a six-week pause begins. Hamas requested a plan in which a further release of hostages during the cease fire would be dependent on progress in talks toward an end to the war, the Egyptian officials said.

Netanyahu has said that ending the war is a red line he wouldn’t cross.

In its current offer, Hamas says it would keep male Israeli soldiers hostages in captivity until an agreement is reached on a permanent cease fire and a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is completed, Egyptian officials said.

Israeli officials have previously informed negotiators that they were only willing to discuss the humanitarian-aid aspects of a deal. Israel hasn’t sent a technical team to Cairo to start the indirect negotiations with Hamas, according to Egyptian officials.

Anat Peled and David Cloud contributed to this article.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com and Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com

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