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Israel agrees to four-hour daily humanitarian pauses in Gaza, White House says

The agreement does not constitute a ceasefire, nor does it open the door to the release of hostages held by Hamas

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Tel al-Hawa
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, where buildings are heavily damaged or collapsed in the southern part of Gaza City, on November 09, 2023.Ali Jadallah (Anadolu / Getty)

The United States announced Thursday that Israel has agreed to allow daily four-hour humanitarian pauses in its attacks on Gaza. The agreement announced by John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, coincides with the talks that Israel, the U.S. and Qatar are holding in Doha, the capital of this Persian Gulf country — negotiations that have so far failed to achieve their goal of freeing some of the more than 240 hostages captured by Hamas on October 7. With the humanitarian pauses, which do not constitute a ceasefire, Israel is yielding — partially — to international pressure. The aim of these pauses is to allow access for humanitarian aid entering Gaza and for residents of the Palestinian enclave to move south to escape the heavy bombardment in the north.

“The fighting continues and there will be no ceasefire without the release of our hostages,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “Israel is allowing safe passage through humanitarian corridors from the northern Gaza Strip to the south, which 50,000 Gazans utilized just yesterday (Wednesday).” Both Israel and its main ally believe that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to catch its breath. Therefore, in the same vein as Netanyahu, U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged that in the short term there is “no possibility” of a cessation of hostilities.

The agreement — if implemented — would be the first respite in a month of Israeli bombardment that has left more than 10,800 people dead in Gaza, according to health authorities in the Hamas-ruled enclave. The White House, which announced the initiative, called the decision “a step in the right direction.” But Biden himself acknowledged that the Israeli concession falls short of what he had called for: a pause of more than three days to allow the release of hostages held by Hamas.

It is “a particularly serious mistake” to accept these humanitarian pauses without the release of all the hostages, criticized the Israeli Minister of National Security, the ultra-conservative Itamar Ben-Gvir, via X (formerly Twitter). The pauses will be announced three hours before they start each day. For the transfer of people, Israel will allow two humanitarian corridors between the north and south of the Gaza Strip, one on the coast and another — which has already operated for a few hours over the past few days — inland, according to the White House. While the pauses are in effect, Israeli forces will not conduct any operations in Gaza, said Kirby. “We would like to see pauses continue for as long as humanitarian assistance is needed,” he added.

The high-level meeting in the Qatari capital came after local government mediators met with Hamas representatives on Wednesday, Reuters reported. A delegation from the Islamist movement led by Ismail Haniya and Khaled Mashal has gone to Cairo. However, Egypt continues to refuse to accept the departure of refugees from the Strip beyond a few citizens with dual passports and a few dozen wounded. Those allowed to cross into Egypt have done so through the Rafah border crossing, the only one that does not border Israel, which is also key to the resolution of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, given that it is the way to get aid into the enclave. Throughout Thursday, 695 foreigners and a dozen wounded left the Strip, according to Reuters.

The heads of Mossad, David Barnea, and the CIA, William Burns — the Israeli and U.S. foreign espionage services, respectively — held a meeting with the Qatari Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, to advance the terms of the pact. Before the White House announcement, Israeli President Isaac Herzog tried to curb the possible optimism that could be generated by the information being leaked by different sources. On whether Hamas had agreed to free Israeli hostages, Herzog was clear: “There is no real proposal that is viable from Hamas’ side on this issue,” he told NBC.

Pressure from Biden

The announcement comes after a series of intense diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Israel, in which President Biden has been personally involved. The Democrat acknowledged that last Monday — in his last reported direct conversation with Netanyahu — he specifically asked the Israeli prime minister to give the green light for these respites. The official line from Washington is one of optimism. According to Kirby — who stressed the amount of U.S. pressure that was needed to extract this gesture from Israel — these pauses will help reduce the number of civilian casualties in Gaza.

However, what Israel agreed to is far from what Biden had in mind. The president himself acknowledged as much in brief remarks to the press accompanying him on a trip to Illinois. According to him, he had asked Netanyahu for “a longer three-day pause.” For the first time since the crisis began, Biden hinted at some irritation with the allied country’s prime minister. Asked if he was frustrated in his negotiations with Netanyahu, he indicated that the announcement of the pauses has “taken a little longer than I hoped.”

Israeli military spokespeople insisted that only “tactical pauses” will be carried out at specific locations and times in the Gaza Strip to allow the population, pushed into forced displacement, to escape the constant airstrikes.

Since the onset of the war, Qatar, the host country of some Hamas leaders, has played a vital role in working towards a possible deescalation of the conflict. Its mediation has already succeeded in freeing four Israeli women kidnapped by the fundamentalist militia on October 7. On that day, hundreds of armed militiamen entered Israeli territory from Gaza, killing some 1,400 people. In the subsequent Israeli military operation by land, sea and air, in addition to the death of more than 10,800 Gazans, 39 members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been killed. Additionally, 99 workers of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) have also been killed in Gaza.

Although Israel assures that it has no plans to remain inside Gaza after the war, images shared on social networks say otherwise. In a video shared Thursday, IDF soldiers can be seen holding a ceremony on a beach in Gaza, boasting of having conquered the Strip and raising the Israeli flag.

Meanwhile, violence continues in the occupied West Bank and the Israeli border with Lebanon, where Israel and Hezbollah continue to trade attacks. In the West Bank city of Jenin alone, some fifteen Palestinians were killed on Thursday during an Israeli military operation that included air and ground deployment.

Also on Thursday, a drone fell on a school in the Israeli city of Eilat, on the shores of the Red Sea, before a missile headed for the same area was intercepted by the Israeli air defense system. Houthi rebels had claimed previous such attacks from Yemen in the past month.

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