Mar 9, 2024 - World

Hostage talks intensify as fears rise of violence during Ramadan

A small number of Palestinians pray Friday at al-Aqsa compound. Photo: Mohammad Hamad/Anadolu via Getty Images

A small number of Palestinians pray Friday at al-Aqsa compound. Photo: Mohammad Hamad/Anadolu via Getty Images

U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators are intensifying their efforts to reach a hostage deal and temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas amid growing concerns of a violent escalation in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan, three U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The raging war and dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza add to a backdrop of violent confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians in recent years during Ramadan, which is expected to begin Monday.

  • Tensions center around the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a holy site for Muslims and Jews that is administered by Jordan but access to it is controlled by Israeli security forces.

Driving the news: CIA director Bill Burns secretly met Israeli Mossad director David Barnea in Jordan on Friday to discuss efforts to reach a hostage deal in Gaza, an Israeli source told Axios.

  • "Hamas is striving to set fire to the area during Ramadan at the expense of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip," the Israeli Mossad said in a rare statement that confirmed the meeting between Burns and Barnea.
  • "Hamas is refusing to make concessions and signals it is not interested in the deal," the statement said.

The other side: The spokesman for Hamas' military wing, Abu Ubaida, called on Friday for the month of Ramadan to be an escalation of the "flood of Al-Aqsa," the name Hamas gave the October 7 attack on Israel.

  • He called for "confrontation and demonstration, on all fronts inside and outside Palestine" and for Palestinians to "mobilize towards al-Aqsa mosque," during Ramadan.
  • The spokesman also said the group is engaging constructively with mediators about the hostage deal and stressed Hamas demands an end to the war and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Behind the scenes: Burns updated Barnea in their meeting about the talks he had in Egypt and Qatar earlier this week, an Israeli official said.

  • Burns arrived in Egypt on Wednesday for talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel on the hostage deal and then traveled to Doha on Thursday for similar talks with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, a U.S. official said.

Catch up quick: The hostage deal being negotiated could lead to a six-week ceasefire in Gaza and include the release of about 40 Israeli hostages in return for about 400 Palestinian prisoners, including several dozen who killed Israelis.

  • The return of Palestinian civilians to northern Gaza is a top priority for Hamas in the negotiations and one of the main sticking points in the talks, according to sources with direct knowledge.

The big picture: The hostage deal is the most important pillar in the U.S. strategy around the war in Gaza and in the broader region, and the Biden administration says it is making huge efforts to not let it slip away.

  • U.S. ambassador to Israel Jack Lew stressed during a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on Thursday that if a hostage deal is not reached, it won't be possible to realize the broader U.S. strategy, including a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
  • "A pause in the fighting will increase the likelihood of a calm in the north and increase the likelihood of normalization with Saudi Arabia. At every level the hostage crisis has to be brought to conclusion," the U.S. ambassador said.
  • Lew added the Biden administration is doing everything it can "to keep the conversation going" around the hostage deal and stressed the talks haven't broken down.
  • "Can I guarantee success? No. While the goal of getting a deal by Ramadan is very important — getting it done is what we have to focus on," he said.

State of play: A U.S. official told Axios the Biden administration continues its efforts to bring about a breakthrough in the negotiations, but said the U.S. does not set a deadline for talks.

  • White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the families of the American hostages held by Hamas during a meeting at the White House on Wednesday that the U.S. intends to continue pushing for a deal even after the beginning of the month of Ramadan, per three sources familiar.
  • The Qatari prime minister told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken when they met in Washington earlier this week that Qatar will continue to push for a deal during Ramadan.

What they're saying: President Biden told reporters on Friday that it is going to be tough to get a deal by Ramadan and stressed he is concerned about violence erupting in Jerusalem without a ceasefire during the holy month.

  • "Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called publicly for violence in Ramadan — we know that this may be something they will want to do. This hostage deal is the way to reach a ceasefire. We know that extremists may use Ramadan to try and set the area on fire," a U.S. official told reporters on Thursday.

What to watch: The Israeli government ordered police to allow the same worship conditions at the al-Aqsa Mosque as in previous years and to limit the number of worshipers only on the basis of public safety considerations to avoid a stampede.

  • But U.S. officials told Axios the administration is concerned that because the Israeli police are under the authority of the ultranationalist minister Itamar Ben Gvir provocative steps could be taken on the ground under his orders. Ben Gvir advocated last month to largely ban worshippers from the mosque during Ramadan.
  • Lew has been in constant talks in recent days with senior Israeli officials and conveyed the administration's concerns about the prayers at the mosque during Ramadan, a U.S. official said.
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