Hamas gave ‘positive’ response to truce deal: Qatar

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, at Diwan Annex, in Doha on 6 February, 2024, during his Middle East tour, his fifth urgent trip to the region since the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza erupted in OctoberAFP

Key mediator Qatar said Tuesday that Hamas gave a “positive” response to a truce proposal as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured the region seeking an enduring end to Hamas’s nearly four-month war with Israel.

Hamas confirmed it delivered its response to proposals hammered out a week ago in Paris between Qatar and other mediators.

“We have received a reply from Hamas with regards to the general framework of the agreement with regards to hostages. The reply includes some comments, but in general it is positive,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told reporters after meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Doha.

Blinken, on his fifth Middle East crisis tour since the war broke out, said Hamas’s reply has been “shared” with Israel and he will discuss it with Israeli leaders on Wednesday.

“We’re studying it intensely... and we will be working as hard as we possibly can to try to get an agreement,” Blinken said.

The war started with unprecedented Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza including 28 who are believed to have been killed.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel has launched air strikes and a land offensive that has killed at least 27,585 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry there.

The United Nations, rights groups and charities have deplored the “catastrophic” humanitarian situation in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel’s campaign has devastated swathes of Gaza, destroyed hospitals and displaced half of its population of 2.4 million, while food, water, fuel and medicine are in dire shortage.

Heavy strikes and fighting continued on Tuesday, with the health ministry in Gaza saying at least 107 people were killed in 24 hours, including six policemen securing an aid truck.

And fear has mounted for more than a million Palestinians sheltering in the far southern city of Rafah, after Israeli warnings it was the next target of its campaign to eradicate Hamas.

The army “will reach places where we have not yet fought... right up to the last Hamas bastion, which is Rafah”, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday.

“Where will we go if they storm Rafah?,” said Raed al-Bardani, 32, who has been displaced multiple times with his wife and four children and now shelters in the southern city.

Diplomatic push

Blinken met Qatari leaders on Tuesday after visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Blinken said in Doha after being informed of Hamas’s reply.

“But we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and indeed essential,” he said.

The Qatari premier said he was “optimistic” but declined to discuss the Hamas reply in detail, citing the “sensitivity of the circumstances”.

Last week, a Hamas source said the truce deal calls for a six-week pause to fighting as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and more aid for Gaza.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas has presented “demands that we will not accept” for an exchange involving thousands of prisoners.

Netanyahu is under pressure to end the war and bring the hostages home, amid divisions within his cabinet and public fury over the fate of the remaining captives.

‘Beyond catastrophic’

Israeli troops, with air and naval support, have been engaged in heavy combat centred on Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas’s Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, accused by Israel of masterminding the 7 October attack.

The army said Tuesday that “over the past day, dozens of terrorists have been killed and approximately 80 individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activity have been apprehended, including a number of terrorists that took part in the 7 October massacre”.

“The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is beyond catastrophic,” said Tommaso Della Longa, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

He said around 8,000 displaced people had been evacuated from the besieged Al-Amal hospital in Khan Yunis, where they had sought refuge, after weeks of heavy shelling and fighting nearby.

The United States has strongly backed Israel with munitions and diplomatic support, but also urged steps to reduce civilian casualties.

On Tuesday in Doha, Blinken said the deal “offers the prospect of extended calm, hostages out, more assistance in.

“That would clearly be beneficial to everyone, and I think that offers the best path forward.”

Huthi attacks

As the Gaza war has raged, violence has also flared in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where Iran-backed groups have launched attacks in support of Hamas, triggering counterattacks by Israel and the United States and its partners.

The Israeli army said strikes from Lebanon lightly wounded two soldiers and that it retaliated with artillery. Its fighter jets had also targeted Hezbollah bases near Marwahin and Meiss El Jabal in southern Lebanon.

French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, on a visit to Beirut, delivered a warning from Israel that it was threatening to launch war on its neighbour to return its civilians displaced by cross-border fire.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthis have for weeks been targeting what they say are Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in solidarity with Palestinians.

The attacks have disrupted global trade and prompted reprisals by US and British forces, including strikes on two “explosive-laden drone boats” on Monday, according to the US military.

The Huthis said Tuesday they had struck US and British commercial ships in two separate attacks.