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Israel is ready to pause its war in Gaza during Ramadan if a hostage deal is reached, Biden says

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JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. President Joe Biden signaled that a cease-fire in Gaza could be at hand, saying that Israel has agreed to pause its offensive during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan if a deal is reached to release some hostages held by Hamas.

But both Israel and Hamas downplayed on Tuesday the idea that a breakthrough was imminent.

In the wake of Hamas’ attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israel’s air, sea and ground campaign in Gaza has killed tens of thousands of people, obliterated large swaths of the urban landscape, displaced 80% of the battered enclave’s population and sparked concerns that a famine could be imminent, according to the United Nations.

Now, the prospect of an invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over the fate of civilians trapped there.

Talks to pause the fighting have gained momentum recently and were underway Tuesday. Negotiators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar have been working to broker a cease-fire that would see Hamas free some of the dozens of hostages it holds in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners, a six-week halt in fighting and an increase in aid deliveries to Gaza.

The start of Ramadan, which is expected to be around March 10, is seen as an unofficial deadline for a deal. The month is a time of heightened religious observance and dawn-to-dusk fasting for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Israeli-Palestinian tensions have flared in the past during the holy month.

“Ramadan’s coming up and there has been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan as well, in order to give us time to get all the hostages out,” Biden said in an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” that was filmed Monday.

In separate comments the same day, Biden said that he hoped a cease-fire deal could take effect by next week.

At the same time, Biden did not call for an end to the war, which was triggered when Hamas militants killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted roughly 250 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Israeli officials said Biden’s comments came as a surprise and were not made in coordination with the country’s leadership. A Hamas official played down any sense of progress, saying the group wouldn’t soften its demands.

The Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media, said Israel wants a deal immediately, but that Hamas continues to push excessive demands. They also said that Israel is insisting that female soldiers be part of the first group of hostages released under any truce deal.

Hamas official Ahmad Abdel-Hadi indicated that optimism on a deal was premature.

“The resistance is not interested in giving up any of its demands, and what is proposed does not meet what it had requested,” he told the Pan-Arab TV channel Al Mayadeen.

Hamas has previously demanded that Israel end the war as part of any deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “delusional.”

At a news conference in Doha on Tuesday, Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said “we feel optimistic” about the talks, without elaborating.

A senior official from Egypt has said the draft deal includes the release of up to 40 women and older hostages in return for up to 300 Palestinian prisoners — mostly women, minors and older people.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said the proposed six-week pause in fighting would allow hundreds of trucks to bring desperately needed aid into Gaza every day, including to the hard-hit north.

Biden, who has shown staunch support for Israel throughout the war, left open the door in his remarks for an eventual Israeli ground offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, on the border with Egypt, where more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have fled under Israeli evacuation orders.

Netanyahu has said a ground operation in Rafah is an inevitable component of Israel’s strategy for crushing Hamas. This week, the military submitted for Cabinet approval operational plans for the offensive, as well as evacuation plans for civilians there.

Biden said he believes Israel has slowed its bombardment of Rafah.

“They have to and they have made a commitment to me that they’re going to see to it that there’s an ability to evacuate significant portions of Rafah before they go and take out the remainder Hamas,” he said. “But it’s a process.”

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed more than 29,700 people, most of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. It does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its count.

The first and only cease-fire in the war, in late November, brought about the release of about 100 hostages — mostly women, children and foreign nationals — in exchange for about 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, as well as a brief halt in the fighting.

Roughly 130 hostages remain in Gaza, but Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.

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Shurafa reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Magdy from Cairo. Associated Press writers Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Tia Goldenberg, Wafaa Shurafa And Samy Magdy, The Associated Press

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