Gaza Ceasefire Plan Hangs in Balance as US Says Hamas Seeking Changes

Destruction in Gaza caused by Israeli airstrikes (AP)
Destruction in Gaza caused by Israeli airstrikes (AP)
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Gaza Ceasefire Plan Hangs in Balance as US Says Hamas Seeking Changes

Destruction in Gaza caused by Israeli airstrikes (AP)
Destruction in Gaza caused by Israeli airstrikes (AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that Hamas had proposed numerous changes, some unworkable, to a US-backed proposal for a ceasefire with Israel in Gaza, but that mediators were determined to close the gaps.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan denied that the Palestinian group had put forward new ideas. Speaking to pan-Arab Al-Araby TV, he reiterated Hamas' stance that it was Israel that was rejecting proposals and accused the US administration of going along with its close ally to "evade any commitment" to a blueprint for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday many of Hamas' proposed changes were minor "and not unanticipated" while others differed more substantially from what was outlined in a UN Security Council resolution on Monday backing the plan put forward by US President Joe Biden.

"Our aim is to bring this process to a conclusion. Our view is that the time for haggling is over," Sullivan told reporters.

Hamas also wants written guarantees from the US on the ceasefire plan, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters.

Earlier on Wednesday, Izzat al-Rishq, from Hamas' political bureau based outside Gaza, said its formal response to the US proposal was "responsible, serious and positive" and "opens up a wide pathway" for an accord.

Biden's proposal envisages a truce and a phased release of Israeli hostages in Gaza in exchange for Palestinians jailed in Israel, ultimately leading to a permanent end to the war.

At a press conference with Qatar's prime minister in Doha, Blinken said some of the counter-proposals from Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, had sought to amend terms that it had accepted in previous talks.

MONTHS OF TALKS

Negotiators from the US, Egypt and Qatar have tried for months to mediate a ceasefire in the conflict - which has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and devastated the heavily populated enclave - and free the hostages, more than 100 of whom are believed to remain captive in Gaza.

"Hamas could have answered with a single word: Yes," Blinken said. "Instead, Hamas waited nearly two weeks and then proposed more changes, a number of which go beyond positions that it had previously taken and accepted."

The US has said Israel has accepted its proposal, but Israel has not publicly stated this.

Blinken said Washington would in coming weeks float ideas for a post-war Gaza administration and rebuilding of the enclave. "We have to have plans for the day after the conflict ends in Gaza, and we need to have them as soon as possible."

Major powers are intensifying efforts to defuse the conflict in part to prevent it spiraling into a wider Middle East war, with a dangerous flashpoint being the escalating hostilities along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Lebanon's Hezbollah party, backed by Iran, fired barrages of rockets at Israel on Wednesday in retaliation for the killing of a senior Hezbollah field commander. Israel said it had in turn attacked the launch sites from the air.

Taleb Abdallah, or Abu Taleb, was the most senior Hezbollah commander killed in the conflict, a security source said, and Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine vowed that the group would expand its operations against Israel.

UN FINDINGS ON WAR CRIMES

The fighting in Gaza began on Oct. 7 when fighters led by Hamas burst across the border and killed 1,200 Israelis and took more than 250 hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel's air and ground war since then has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry, displaced most of Gaza's population of 2.3 million and devastated housing and infrastructure.

The head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday many people in Gaza were facing "catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions", with over 8,000 children under five years old diagnosed and treated for acute malnutrition.

A UN inquiry found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes early in the Gaza war, and that Israel's actions also constituted crimes against humanity because of the immense civilian losses.

The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) produced two parallel reports, one focusing on the Oct. 7 attacks and another on Israel's response.

Israel, which did not cooperate, dismissed the findings as the result of anti-Israeli bias. Hamas did not immediately comment.

The reports released in Geneva, which cover the period to December, found both sides had committed war crimes including torture; murder or willful killing; outrages upon personal dignity; and inhuman or cruel treatment.

Evidence gathered by such UN-mandated bodies can form the basis for war crimes prosecutions.

It could be drawn on by the International Criminal Court, where prosecutors last month requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense minister and three Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes.

ISRAEL CONTINUES ASSAULTS IN GAZA

As diplomats sought a ceasefire deal, Israel continued assaults in central and southern Gaza that are among the bloodiest of the war.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not commit to end its campaign before Hamas is eliminated.

Residents said Israeli forces had pounded areas across Gaza on Wednesday as tanks advanced towards the northern part of the city of Rafah, which skirts the Egyptian border.

Palestinian health officials said six people had been killed in an airstrike on Gaza City in the north, and one man had been killed by a tank shell in Rafah.

In the central city of Deir Al-Balah, mother-of-two Huda said the displaced had lost hope that the war would end anytime soon. "We lost faith both in our leaders, and in the world," she told Reuters via a chat app.

"Ceasefire promises by our leaders and the world are like words written in butter at night, they disappear with the first light of day."



Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territory ‘Illegal’, Says UN Top Court

The panel of judges, with President Nawaf Salam (C), at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, during a non-binding ruling on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 19 July 2024. (EPA)
The panel of judges, with President Nawaf Salam (C), at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, during a non-binding ruling on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 19 July 2024. (EPA)
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Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territory ‘Illegal’, Says UN Top Court

The panel of judges, with President Nawaf Salam (C), at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, during a non-binding ruling on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 19 July 2024. (EPA)
The panel of judges, with President Nawaf Salam (C), at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, during a non-binding ruling on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 19 July 2024. (EPA)

The UN's top court, in a sweeping opinion on Friday, said that Israel's decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory was "illegal" and needed to end as soon as possible.

The advisory opinion by The Hague-based International Court of Justice was immediately slammed as a "decision of lies" by Israel, but welcomed by the Palestinian presidency, which called it "historic".

The ICJ's statement, called an "advisory opinion", is not binding, but it comes amid mounting concern over the death toll and destruction in Israel's war against Hamas sparked by the group's brutal October 7 attacks.

It is also likely to increase diplomatic pressure on Israel, whose lawmakers on Thursday voted to oppose a Palestinian state, calling it an "existential threat".

In The Hague, ICJ presiding judge Nawaf Salam said: "The court has found... that Israel's continued presence in the Palestinian Territories is illegal."

Israel is "under the obligation to bring to an end its unlawful presence as rapidly as possible," the judge said in its finding, read at the Peace Palace, seat of the ICJ.

The ICJ added that Israel was "under an obligation to cease immediately all new settlement activities and to evacuate all settlers" from occupied land.

Israel's policies and practices, including the maintenance of a wall between the territories, "amount to annexation of large parts" of the occupied territory, the court said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the ICJ's opinion as a "decision of lies".

"The Jewish people are not occupiers in their own land -- not in our eternal capital Jerusalem, nor in our ancestral heritage of Judea and Samaria" (the occupied West Bank), Netanyahu said in a statement.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki called it a "watershed moment".

A separate, high-profile case that South Africa has brought before the court alleges that Israel has committed genocidal acts during its Gaza offensive.

South Africa, in a statement, called upon the international community "to bring an immediate end to the occupation and the gross violations of international humanitarian and human rights law being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people".

- 'Extreme danger' -

In late 2022, the UN's General Assembly asked the ICJ to give an "advisory opinion" on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem".

The ICJ held a week-long session in February to hear submissions from countries following the request -- supported by most countries within the Assembly.

During the hearings, most speakers called on Israel to end its 57-year occupation. They warned a prolonged occupation posed an "extreme danger" to stability in the Middle East and beyond.

But the United States said Israel should not be legally obliged to withdraw without taking its "very real security needs" into account.

Israel did not take part in the oral hearings.

- 'Ongoing violation' -

The General Assembly asked the ICJ to consider two questions.

Firstly, the court should examine the legal consequences of what the UN called "the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination".

In its answer, the ICJ's judges said Israel's "unlawful policies and practices are in breach" of its "obligation to respect the rights of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination".

In June 1967, Israel defeated some of its Arab neighbors in a six-day war, seizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem, at the time annexed by Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

Israel then began to settle the 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) of seized Arab territory.

The UN later declared the occupation of Palestinian territory illegal, and Cairo regained Sinai under its 1979 peace deal with Israel.

- 'Restrictions' -

The ICJ also was asked to look into the consequences of what it described as Israel's "adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures".

In this finding, the ICJ said a "regime of comprehensive restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinians consisted of systemic discrimination based on race, religion or ethnic origin."

The ICJ rules in disputes between states. Normally, its judgements are binding but it has few means to enforce them.

In this case, however, the opinion is non-binding, although most advisory opinions are in fact acted upon.

The ICJ has previously issued advisory opinions on the legality of Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and apartheid South Africa's occupation of Namibia.

It also handed down an opinion in 2004 declaring that parts of the wall erected by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory were illegal and should be torn down.

Israel has not complied with that ICJ ruling.