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US official: No significant pause in war until all women and children held hostage are freed

MANAMA, Bahrain — U.S. President Joe Biden’s top Middle East adviser said Saturday there will be no “significant pause” in the war between Israel and Hamas as long as all women and children detained by terrorists in Gaza would not be released, thereby aligning the administration with that of Israel. position.

“The increased humanitarian aid, the increased fuel supplies, the pause… will come when the hostages are released,” Brett McGurk told a security conference in Bahrain.

The release of “all women, children, young children and babies” would result in “a significant pause… and a massive increase in humanitarian aid”, he said.

It “is incumbent upon Hamas,” McGurk said, to take steps that would lead to a pause in the fighting.

Hamas terrorists captured around 240 hostages on October 7 when they crossed the militarized border from Gaza into southern Israel to kill around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, who were massacred amid atrocities brutal in their homes and at a music festival.

In response, Israel bombarded Gaza and launched a ground offensive aimed at overthrowing Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, and recovering the hostages. The Hamas-run Health Ministry reported more than 12,000 Palestinians killed, without distinguishing between fighters and civilians. These figures cannot be independently verified and would also include Palestinians killed by faulty rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.

McGurk said Biden discussed the issue Friday evening with the leader of the Gulf nation of Qatar, who is leading mediation efforts toward a ceasefire and the release of the hostages.

The White House said Biden and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani discussed “the urgent need to release all hostages held by Hamas without further delay.”

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in the Oval Office of the White House, January 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Two days earlier, Biden said he had “a slight hope” of reaching a deal to free the hostages, which would include about 10 U.S. citizens.

Qatar’s efforts so far have led to the release of four of the hostages. A fifth hostage, a soldier, was rescued during an Israeli operation.

The Israeli army announced this week that it had recovered the bodies of two female hostages in Gaza.

McGurk said Saturday that the situation in the besieged Palestinian territory was “horrible” and “intolerable.”

A senior European official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “we must work” for the release of the hostages and to obtain humanitarian breaks.

“If they go together, great. But the important thing is that both things need to happen,” the official said.

Israel has refused to respond to calls for a ceasefire before all hostages are released, a position McGurk appears to support in his remarks.

“It is not possible to return to October 6. This is true for Israel. This is true for the Palestinians,” McGurk said. “No country can live with terrorist threats like those that Hamas unleashed on October 7 on its border. And at the same time, Palestinians deserve to need security and self-determination. »

McGurk proposed what he described as “five no’s” to the war: “No forced displacement, no reoccupation, no reduction of territory, no threats against Israel, no siege.”

He also insisted that the Palestinians would have a crucial place in any possible diplomatic agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“In this case, what was true before October 7 is even more true now,” McGurk said. “This central question must be resolved. And as Hamas is degraded, we are determined to help remedy it. »

Families of hostages held by Hamas marching towards Jerusalem, November 16, 2023. (Yael Gadot)

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who also attended the Bahrain conference, said it was “unacceptable” to link humanitarian pauses to the release of hostages.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reflected on the future of Gaza, saying “Hamas can no longer control Gaza.”

The Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah in the West Bank, “has told me that it is ready and willing to take on this responsibility” with help from the international community, Borrell said.

He added that Arab countries should also play a role in any future configuration, both political and economic, of Gaza.

Safadi, a vocal critic of Israel who has repeatedly condemned the military campaign against Hamas, insisted that “no Arab troops” would be deployed to Gaza.

Bahrain’s annual Manama Dialogue typically focuses on Gulf Arab countries’ fears regarding Iran in the region. This year, however, the war between Israel and Hamas took center stage, in part when Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates reached diplomatic recognition agreements with Israel in 2020.

On Friday evening, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa opened the summit by calling for an exchange between Hamas and Israel for the hostages and an end to the bloodshed.

“You want to call it a ceasefire. You want to call it a break. You can call it whatever you want, ”said the prince. “The intention is a pause so people can take stock. People can bury their dead. People can finally start to grieve. And maybe people could start to question the intelligence failure that led to this crisis.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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