Israeli-Palestinian war, truce sought. But Hamas warns: “We don't know how many hostages are alive or where they are”


By John

Negotiations for a truce in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages continue on a roller coaster for weeks now. An agreement before Ramadan, barring sudden changes, still appears difficult at the moment, with Hamas appearing to be stalling and despite the growing pressure on Israel which is also coming from the United States: Vice President Kamala Harris called for “an immediate ceasefire of at least 6 weeks”, attracting criticism from part of the Israeli unity government. Egypt, where talks with US and Qatar mediators have been held for two days but without Israel, spoke in the morning of “tangible progress” in the negotiations. Then the slowdown by Hamas according to which “there is no real progress” because, according to the Palestinian faction, Israel does not give “clear answers” regarding, in particular, the ceasefire, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the return of the displaced. Hamas “insists on these requests before taking any position on the Israeli hostages”, said a senior official of the Palestinian faction. But here comes the short circuit: Hamas is calling for the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners, including 20 sentenced to life imprisonment, for the release of the hostages, but claims at the same time that it does not know how many abductees are still alive or where they are. «Until now we have not presented any list» of names to Israel, because «first of all, technically and practically, it is now impossible to know exactly who is still alive and who was killed due to Israeli bombings or who died of starvation because of the Israeli blockade,” Basim Naim, a Hamas political official, explained in an interview with the BBC. Indeed, in his vision, the truce invoked would serve precisely to track them down: “They are in different areas, held by different groups, and therefore we asked for a ceasefire to be able to collect information”, he declared. It is not the first time that Hamas claims to have lost track of hostages, kidnapped by other armed groups in the Strip or killed in Israeli raids, creating a macabre suspense, especially among family members waiting to embrace them again, to play the bullish game in advancing requests in exchange for their release: among the latest also that of a gradual return of the civilian population to the north of Gaza, with around 500 families a day for the entire duration of the truce.

Now “the ball is in Israel's court”, said Hamas, which demands a “decisive response” by Ramadan, which will begin on Sunday 10 March. All in the silence of Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza who should endorse the possible agreement and who, according to the Wall Street Journal, has not communicated with the leaders involved in the negotiations for at least a week, perhaps in an attempt to delay the agreement until next week and increase tensions during the holy month for Muslims. Even in Israel the hardest fringes of the emergency government, the far right of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, oppose a ceasefire and attack Benny Gantz, also a member of the war cabinet, who flew to the United States « at his request” and without the consent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Gantz is a weak link” in the government and “lends himself to the game of the Biden administration: in practice he supports their project for the establishment of a Palestinian state”, he thundered the Minister of Finance and leader of Religious Zionism, ordering the former prime minister and former chief of staff to only express positions in line with those of the government. Faced with the UN's delays in condemning the rapes committed by Hamas on 7 October, Israel has meanwhile recalled its ambassador to the Glass Palace, Gilad Erdan, for consultations. Immediately afterwards, the United Nations released a report stating that there are “good reasons to believe” that there had been sexual violence during the attacks on the kibbutzim and speaking of “clear and convincing information” according to which some of the hostages in Gaza they would have been raped. While the IDF has once again accused UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, of complicity with Palestinian terrorists: according to the Israeli army, there are over 450 employees of the United Nations body who “belong to terrorist organizations of the Gaza Strip.” UNRWA for its part accused the Israeli authorities of having tortured some members of its staff during interrogations and tried to defend itself, before the General Assembly, from the complaints which have already cost it the freezing of funding from several countries, in a dramatic moment for the Palestinian population. In the meantime, Italy is also working “to coordinate and encourage the sending of humanitarian aid”, with launches from planes or trucks through the Rafah crossing, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said, hoping for a meeting of representatives of the UN agencies present in Rome “in the next few days”.