• Associated Press

Qatar Gets ‘Positive’ Response from Hamas on Cease-fire Plan as Group Reiterates Its Broader Demands

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, shakes hands with Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, at Diwan Annex, in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Hamas’ response to the latest plan for a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of hostages was “generally positive,” key mediator Qatar said Tuesday, as the militant group reiterated its demand for an end to the war, something Israel has thus far ruled out.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdurrahman Al Thani announced the response during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said he would brief Israeli leaders on it Wednesday when he meets with them.

Blinken, who met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the day before, said the Saudis still have a “strong interest” in normalizing relations with Israel but require an end to the war and a “clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Qatar, which has long mediated with Hamas, has been working with the U.S. and Egypt to broker a cease-fire that would involve a halt in fighting for several weeks and the release of the over 100 hostages still held by Hamas after its Oct. 7 cross-border raid that ignited the war.

Hamas said in a statement that it responded in a “positive spirit” to the latest proposal. But the militant group said it still seeks “a comprehensive and complete” cease-fire to end “the aggression against our people.” Hamas is also expected to demand the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including high-profile militants, in exchange for the hostages.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel is committed to continuing its offensive until “total victory” over Hamas and to returning all the hostages. He has also dismissed U.S. calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.

When asked by reporters, President Joe Biden said Hamas’ response “seems to be a little over the top” but that negotiations would go on.

A U.S. official said Blinken was told the Hamas response was delivered to Qatar just an hour before his meeting with the prime minister. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Blinken acknowledged “there’s still a lot of work to be done.” But he said he still believed an agreement on the hostages was possible and that a pathway to more lasting peace and security in the region was “coming ever more sharply into focus.”

“We know the immense benefits that would come for everyone concerned with Israel’s further integration into the region, starting with the benefits for Israel,” Blinken said. “That’s something that Israelis will have to decide for themselves.”

“All of this requires difficult, hard decisions, made all the more challenging given the focus on the conflict in Gaza,” Blinken said.

Netanyahu’s office said the Hamas response had been delivered to Israel’s Mossad spy agency and was being “thoroughly evaluated.”

WAR GRINDS ON IN GAZA

The Palestinian death toll from nearly four months of war has reached 27,585, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count but says most of the dead have been women and children.

The war has leveled vast swaths of the tiny enclave and pushed a quarter of residents to starvation.

Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the Oct. 7 attack and abducted around 250. More than 100 captives, mostly women and children, were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

The Israeli military said Tuesday it was battling militants in areas across the Gaza Strip, including the southern city of Khan Younis. It said troops killed dozens of militants over the past day, without providing evidence.

An Israeli airstrike in the city hit an apartment building, killing two parents and four of their five children, according to the children’s grandfather.

Mahmoud al-Khatib said his 41-year-old son, Tariq, was sleeping along with his family when an Israeli warplane bombed their apartment in the middle of the night. The Israeli military rarely comments on individual strikes but blames Hamas for civilians deaths because it fights in residential areas.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS PERSISTS

U.N. humanitarian monitors said Tuesday that Israel’s evacuation orders in the Gaza Strip now cover two-thirds of the territory, or 246 square kilometers (95 square miles). The affected area was home to 1.78 million Palestinians, or 77% of Gaza’s population, before the war.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said in its daily report that the newly displaced have only about 1.5 to 2 liters (50 to 67 ounces) of water per day to drink, cook and wash. It also reported a significant increase in chronic diarrhea among children.

Parents of babies face a particularly difficult challenge because of the high cost or lack of diapers, baby formula and milk.

Zainab Al-Zein, who is sheltering in the central town of Deir al-Balah, said she had to feed her 2.5-month-old daughter solid food, such as biscuits and ground rice, well ahead of the typical 6-month mark because milk and formula were not available.

“This is known, of course, as unhealthy eating, and we know that it causes her intestinal distress, bloating and colic,” al-Zein said. “As you can see, 24 hours like this, she cries and cries continuously.”