Israel and Hamas trade blame for deadlocked negotiations

Police use water cannon to disperse demonstrators during a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 9, 2024.. [VOA]

Negotiations continue for a cease-fire in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, said in a statement Saturday.

"Contacts and cooperation with the mediators continue all the time in an effort to narrow the gaps and reach agreements," the statement said. It was distributed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office as hopes dim for a truce during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Israel and Hamas have traded blame over the deadlock in negotiations just before Ramadan, which begins on or around March 10 and is observed by Muslims worldwide.

A Hamas source told Reuters the group's delegation was unlikely to make another visit to Cairo over the weekend for talks.

Egypt, the United States and Qatar have been mediating negotiations since January. Under a draft of the current cease-fire agreement, 40 hostages would be released in exchange for dozens of Palestinians jailed by Israel.

Hamas blames Israel for the deadlocked negotiations saying it refuses to give guarantees to end the war or pull its forces from the enclave. Netanyahu has called those demands "delusional."

Israeli officials have said that the war will end only with the defeat of Hamas, which has been designated a terror group by the U.S., U.K., EU and others.

In a statement Saturday marking Ramadan, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh vowed the Palestinians would continue to fight Israel "until they regain freedom and independence."

Mossad said Hamas was digging its heels in and aiming for violence in the region to spiral during Ramadan.

Israel attacks Gaza

Dozens of families in the southern city of Rafah in Gaza were left homeless Saturday, when Israeli forces struck one of the largest residential towers there, claiming the block was used by Hamas to plan attacks on Israel.

No casualties were reported.

Israel’s attack is stepping up pressure on the only part of the enclave it has not yet invaded and where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

One of the 300 residents of the tower, located about 500 meters from the border with Egypt, told Reuters that Israel gave them a 30-minute warning to flee the building at night.

"People were startled, running down the stairs, some fell, it was chaos. People left their belongings and money," said Mohammad Al-Nabrees, adding that among those who tripped down the stairs during the panic was a friend's pregnant wife.

After five months of war, the situation in Gaza is deteriorating rapidly.

"There is nowhere safe for people to go," according to a statement released by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Saturday.

The war began on October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages. Israel responded with an air and land assault on Hamas-governed Gaza, killing nearly 31,000 people, according to the local health ministry, with thousands more feared buried under rubble. Neither side differentiates between civilians and combatants. Nearly three-quarters of Gaza's 2.3 million population is displaced. Nearly the entire population is at risk of famine, according to the U.N.

Mirjana Spoljaric, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), decried the ongoing civilian casualties and made the urgent call for the unconditional release of the hostage held by Hamas.

Spoljaric also called for a cessation of hostilities to allow for meaningful humanitarian aid to reach the people in need and for the ICRC to be allowed to visit the hostages. Her statement also asked for the humane treatment of Palestinian detainees in Israeli detention.

UNRWA funding

The head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, Philippe Lazzarini, expressed cautious optimism as some donors have resumed funding the humanitarian agency and that more would join within weeks, he said in an interview with Swiss broadcaster RTS that aired Saturday.

UNRWA, which provides aid and essential services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and across the region, has been under investigation since Israel accused 12 of its 13,000 staff in Gaza of taking part in the October 7 terror attack on southern Israel.

UNRWA said some of its employees released from Israeli detention said they were pressured by Israeli authorities to falsely admit that staff took part in the attack, according to a report by the agency dated February.

UNRWA runs schools, health care clinics and other social services in Gaza, and distributes humanitarian aid. The U.N. has said some 3,000 members of staff are still working to deliver aid in the enclave, where it says 576,000 people — one quarter of the population — are a step away from famine.

"The agency I currently manage is the only agency that delivers public services to Palestinian refugees," Lazzarini said.

"We are the quasi-ministry of education, of primary health. If we were to get rid of such a body, who would bring back the millions of girls and boys who are traumatized in the Gaza Strip today back to a learning environment?" Lazzarini added.

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