WASHINGTON (AP) — Israel has agreed to put in place four-hour daily humanitarian pauses in its assault on Hamas in northern Gaza, the White House said Thursday, as President Joe Biden pressed Israelis for a multi-day stoppage in the fighting in a bid to release hostages held by the militant group.
Biden had asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to institute the daily pauses during a Monday call and said he had also asked the Israelis for a pause of at least three days to allow for negotiations over the release of some hostages held by Hamas.
“Yes,” Biden said, when asked whether he had asked Israel for a three-day pause. “I’ve asked for even a longer pause for some of them.” He added that there was “no possibility” of a formal cease-fire at the moment, and said it had “taken a little longer” than he hoped for Israel to agree to the humanitarian pauses.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that a daily humanitarian pause would be announced Thursday and that the Israelis had committed to announcing each four-hour window at least three hours in advance every day. Israel, he said, also was opening a second corridor for civilians to flee the areas that are the current focus of its military campaign against Hamas, with a coastal road joining the territory’s main north-south highway.
Similar short-term pauses have occurred over the last several days as tens of thousands of civilians have fled southward, but Thursday’s announcement appeared to be an effort to formalize and expand the process, as the U.S. has pressed Israelis to take greater steps to protect civilians in Gaza.
Biden’s push for an even longer pause comes as part of a renewed diplomatic push to free hostages taken by Hamas and other militant groups to the Gaza Strip during their Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel.
Israeli officials estimate that militants still hold 239 hostages, including children and the elderly, from the attack that also saw 1,400 Israelis killed. U.S. officials say it believes fewer than 10 Americans are among those held captive.
Kirby told reporters Thursday that pauses could be useful to “getting all 239 hostages back with their families to include the less than 10 Americans that we know are being held. So if we can get all the hostages out, that’s a nice finite goal.”
“Humanitarian pauses can be useful in the transfer process,” he added.
Indirect talks were taking place in Qatar — which also played a role in the freeing of four hostages by Hamas last month — about a larger release of hostages. CIA Director William Burns was in Doha on Thursday to discuss efforts to win the release of hostages in Gaza with the Qatari prime minister and the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, according to a U.S. official.
Burns met with Mossad chief David Barnea and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said the official, who talked to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Qatar is a frequent go-between in international dealings with Hamas, and some top Hamas political leaders make their home in the Gulf country. The U.S. official stressed Burns was not playing a lead role in the negotiations.
Kirby confirmed that the U.S. continues to have “active discussions with partners about trying to secure the release of hostages,” noting in particular Qatar’s help.
“We know they have lines of communication with Hamas that we don’t,” Kirby said of Qatar. “And we’re going to continue to work with them and regional partners to try to secure the release of all the hostages.”
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, said there had been no shift in Israeli tactics. ’There’s no ceasefire,” he told reporters. ”‘These are tactical local pauses for humanitarian aid, which are limited in time and area.’
“These evacuation corridors are for civilians to move south to safer areas where they can receive humanitarian aid.” Asked about Kirby’s announcement, he said: “It’s not a shift,” though he said Israel would try to expand these humanitarian corridors.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned Israel last week that it risked destroying an eventual possibility for peace unless it acted swiftly to improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza for Palestinian civilians as it intensifies its war against Hamas.
In a blunt call for Israel to pause military operations in the territory to allow for the immediate and increased delivery of assistance, Blinken said the situation would drive Palestinians toward further radicalism and effectively end prospects for any eventual resumption of peace talks to end the conflict.
French President Emmanuel Macron had opened a Gaza aid conference on Thursday with an appeal for Israel to protect civilians, saying that “all lives have equal worth” and that fighting terrorism “can never be carried out without rules.”
Kirby said Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights; special envoy David Satterfield; and Sarah Charles, who leads the USAID’s bureau for humanitarian assistance, were representing the U.S. at the Paris conference. Israel has not been invited by France to the conference. Kirby demurred when asked about the decision to leave Israel out of the international talks.
“We’re focused on trying to have the most constructive conversation there that we can,” Kirby said.
Satterfield on Thursday described improving aid delivery for central and southern Gaza, but described no such effort in the northern battle zone other than to help civilians flee the intensifying Israeli assault there.
He told reporters via an online briefing that the international community had been able to get fuel to turn back on water desalination plants in the south, and that aid into the south was averaging 100 trucks a day. Two pipelines supplying clean drinking water to the south from Israel have been turned back on.
“We do see the ability in the coming days, we hope, to meet the minimum requirements of the population in the south,” he said. “And I’m speaking of the south and the center, not of the north, which remains a kinetic area.”
AP writers Ellen Knickmeyer, Colleen Long and Michelle Price in Washington contributed.