WASHINGTON (AP) — Israel has agreed to institute four-hour daily humanitarian pauses in its attack on Hamas in northern Gaza starting Thursday, the White House said, as President Joe Biden urged Israelis to halt a multi-day pause in fighting to combat the attacks imposed by the to release hostages held by the militant group.
Biden said Thursday there is currently “no possibility” for a formal ceasefire and said it took “a little longer” than he had hoped for Israel to agree to the humanitarian pauses. Biden had asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to institute the daily breaks during a Monday call and said he had also asked the Israelis for a break of at least three days to allow negotiations for the release of some hostages held by Hamas.
“Yes,” Biden said when asked if he had asked Israel for a three-day pause. “I even asked for a longer break for some of them.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the first daily humanitarian pause would be announced Thursday and that the Israelis were committed to announcing each four-hour window at least three hours in advance. Israel, he said, is also opening a second corridor for civilians to flee areas currently at the center of its military campaign against Hamas, with a coastal road connecting to the territory’s main north-south highway.
Similar short-term pauses have occurred in recent days as tens of thousands of civilians fled south. However, Thursday’s announcement appeared to be an attempt to formalize and expand the process as the US has pushed the Israelis to take greater steps to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip.
Biden’s push for an even longer pause is part of a renewed diplomatic push to release hostages taken by Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip during their surprise attack on Israel on October 7.
Israeli officials estimate that militants are still holding 239 hostages, including children and the elderly, in the attack that also killed 1,400 Israelis. U.S. officials believe there are fewer than 10 Americans among the prisoners.
Kirby told reporters Thursday that breaks could be useful in getting “all 239 hostages back with their families, including the fewer than 10 Americans we know are being held.” So if we can free all the hostages, that is a beautiful, finite goal.”
“Humanitarian breaks can be useful in the transfer process,” he added.
Indirect talks about a major release of hostages have taken place in Qatar – which also played a role in Hamas’s release of four hostages last month. CIA Director William Burns was in Doha on Thursday to speak with the Qatari prime minister and the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency about efforts to release hostages in Gaza, according to a U.S. official.
Burns met with Mossad chief David Barnea and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Qatar is a frequent mediator in international dealings with Hamas, and some senior Hamas political leaders are based in the Gulf state. The U.S. official stressed that Burns was not playing a leading role in the negotiations.
Kirby confirmed that the US continues to have “active discussions with partners about trying to secure the release of hostages,” citing Qatar’s help in particular.
“We know they have lines of communication with Hamas that we don’t have,” Kirby said of Qatar. “And we will continue to work with them and regional partners to ensure the release of all hostages.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israel last week that it risks destroying any possible possibility of peace if it does not act quickly to improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip as it intensifies its war against Hamas.
In a blunt appeal for Israel to halt military operations in the area to allow for immediate and increased delivery of aid, Blinken said the situation was pushing Palestinians toward further radicalism and raising the prospect of an eventual resumption of peace talks to end the conflict practically destroy it.
French President Emmanuel Macron opened a Gaza aid conference on Thursday with an appeal to Israel to protect civilians, declaring that “all lives have equal value” and that the fight against terrorism “can never be carried out without rules.”
Kirby said: Uzra Zeya, State Department Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights; Special Envoy David Satterfield; and Sarah Charles, who heads USAID’s Humanitarian Assistance Office, represented the United States at the Paris conference. Israel was not invited to the conference by France. Kirby demurred when asked about the decision to leave Israel out of international talks.
“We’re focused on having as constructive a conversation as possible there,” Kirby said.
AP writers Ellen Knickmeyer, Colleen Long and Michelle Price in Washington contributed.
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