RAFAH: Palestinian children receive cooked food rations as part of a volunteer youth initiative in the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, amid widespread hunger in the occupied territory.—AFP
RAFAH: Palestinian children receive cooked food rations as part of a volunteer youth initiative in the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, amid widespread hunger in the occupied territory.—AFP

• Warring sides ‘stick to demands’ that have held up an agreement as Ramazan looms
• Hamas waiting for Israel’s response to draft ceasefire deal
• UN agency says detainees released by Tel Aviv ‘traumatised’, report abuse

CAIRO: Hamas negotiators stayed in Cairo for a third day of ceasefire talks on Tuesday in an attempt to halt the fighting in the Gaza Strip in time for the fasting month of Ramazan, free Israeli hostages and stave off famine.

A 40-day ceasefire in the conflict would allow some hostages captured by Pales­ti­nian fighters in the October attack, while aid to Gaza would be increased and families able to return to abandoned homes.

“The delegation will remain in Cairo on Tuesday for more talks, they are expected to wrap up this round later today,” a Hamas official told Reuters.

Three security sources from host and mediator Egypt said the warring sides were sticking to demands that had held up an agreement. The Egyptians have re­­­­­mained in contact with the Israelis despite the absence of an Israeli delegation.

Earlier, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim said the group had presented a draft ceasefire agreement, and was now waiting for a response from Israel.

“(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netan­yahu doesn’t want to reach an agreement and the ball now is in the Ameri­cans’ court” to press him, Naim said.

Israel has declined to comment publicly on the talks but a senior Israeli official said: “Israel is making every effort to reach an agreement. We are awaiting a response from Hamas.”

A source had told Reuters earlier that Israel was staying away because Hamas had refused to furnish a list of all hostages who are still alive. Naim said this was impossible without a ceasefire as hostages were scattered across the war zone and held by separate groups.

Washington, both Israel’s closest ally and a sponsor of the ceasefire talks, has said an Israeli-approved deal is already on the table and it is up to Hamas to accept it. Hamas disputes this account as an attempt to deflect blame from Israel if the talks collapse.

The US has also urged Israel to do more to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where more than 30,000 Palest­inians have been killed by Israel’s assault.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on Hamas to accept a plan for an “immediate ceasefire”. “We have an opportunity for an immediate ceasefire that can bring hostages home, that can dramatically increase the amount of humanitarian assistance getting to Palestinians who so desperately need it, and then also set the conditions for an enduring resolution,” he said.

The Egyptian security sources said US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators were addressing this difference by offering separate guarantees to Hamas of peace talks to end the war. The sides also need to resolve a Hamas demand for all Gaza’s residents to be allowed to return to abandoned homes during the truce, as well as Israel’s demand for the list of hostages, the Egyptian sources said.

‘Completely traumatised’

Meanwhile, Gazans detained by Israeli forces are coming back “completely traumatised” upon release and reporting abuses while in captivity, the head of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency said.

Detainees reported being subjected to a “broad range of ill treatment” including threats of electrocution, being photographed naked, sleep deprivation and having dogs used to intimidate them, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini told a media briefing.

The comments follow reporting by the New York Times on an internal investigation compiled by UNRWA staff documenting the state of returning detainees at the Kerem Shalom border.

“We have seen these people coming back from detention, some of them for a couple of weeks, some of them for a couple of months, and most of them coming back (are) completely traumatised by the ordeal they have gone through,” Lazzarini said.

“A number of people have been… debriefed about their ordeal, and we have indeed (compiled) an internal report about their experiences.” The report had been shared with rights groups specialising in detention, he added.

Lazzarini’s comments capped a tumultuous day during which Israel and UNRWA have traded accusations, with Israel accusing the agency of having employed more than 450 “terrorists”. Israel also recalled its ambassador to the UN for consultations after the country accused the organisation of failing to adequately address claims of sexual violence against Israelis committed by Hamas during the October 7 attacks.

A UN report issued on Monday said that there were “reasonable grounds to believe” rapes were committed in Hamas’ attack, and that hostages subsequently taken to Gaza have also been raped.

Ahead of Lazzarini’s comments, meanwhile, UNRWA said Israeli authorities had “detained several of its staff from the Gaza Strip,” who later described abuses in custody.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2024

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