Israel's Rafah deadline raises stakes as Ramadan approaches

Israel's Rafah deadline raises stakes as Ramadan approaches
Israel's Rafah deadline raises stakes as Ramadan approaches

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - GAZA — Israel's sudden threat to unleash its controversial ground operation in the southern Gazan town of Rafah unless all hostages are freed by 10 March has ratcheted up the pressure on the tortuous talks to secure an elusive agreement.

Even before Benny Gantz, a leading member of Israel's war cabinet, threw down the gauntlet, Arab leaders were already anxiously focused on this start of the Islamic holy month — a time of communal fasting and prayer that can intensify a prevailing mood.

"Ramadan is ahead of us and if the situation in Rafah evolves, it will be a very, very dangerous time in the region," warned Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani at the annual Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

The palpable apprehension by an Arab leader directly involved in the protracted negotiations to swap Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, and reach a truce in this grievous war, is being forcefully echoed by other Arab officials.

Their principal preoccupation is the highly combustible situation in the occupied West Bank, where tensions and violence have been steadily escalating.

"The West Bank is a powder keg waiting to explode and, if it does, it is game over," stressed Jordan's Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi in a BBC interview in Munich on Sunday, before Israel seemed to set a deadline.

Conversations in Munich with several Arab and Western officials with knowledge of these high-stake talks underscored a bleak prognosis. They all spoke off the record because of the sensitive nature of the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas involving US, Egyptian and Israeli spy chiefs, as well as Qatar.

"The gaps are still wide," regretted one source. Another described the process as "stuck".

The main stumbling blocks are said to include Hamas's high price for the release of the hostages. A figure of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners for five female Israeli soldiers was cited by one source as one example.

In the first swap in November during a one-week truce, 105 hostages — mainly elderly women and young children — were swapped for 240 Palestinians, many of them teenagers, detained in Israeli prisons. About 130 hostages are said to be still in captivity in Gaza, although a small number are believed to have been killed in this war.

It was always known that Hamas would hike the price to release Israeli soldiers, who they see as one of its most valuable bargaining chips. Sources say negotiators have been trying to bring down these numbers by introducing other incentives such as increased deliveries of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Hamas's broader demand for an end to this war and the pull-out of all Israeli troops are utterly unacceptable to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Hamas's proposed plan as "delusional".

Negotiators have been searching for a less controversial form of words, including "restoring calm".

Israel is also said to be adding new issues to the negotiating table, including its accusation that Hamas failed to deliver medicines to hostages as part of an earlier initiative mediated by Qatar and France. Netanyahu has also been criticized for holding back on presenting any counterproposals until Hamas comes back with more acceptable offers.

Hamas first put forward its own proposal in early February, which included a three-stage ceasefire and a phased release of hostages in exchange for prisoners and humanitarian aid over 135 days.

"That's why we have negotiations," insisted Jordan's Safadi, who accused the Israeli leader of walking away from the talks. "There are a lot of people who are trying very hard to get a deal."

Beyond the details of any agreement, some players are vexed that Hamas will claim credit for hugely important Palestinian issues such as prisoner releases. It is yet another element complicating this highly charged crisis.

Those who insist a deal is still doable point out that both Hamas and Israel would benefit from a truce — even if it is only temporary.

Israel is under mounting pressure, especially from its staunchest ally the United States, to create a "credible plan" to evacuate more than a million Gazans now squeezed into Rafah. About half of Gaza's population, displaced many times over during this punishing war, are now living in tents.

Amid Israeli declarations it must send its troops into Rafah to complete its operation to "destroy Hamas", Egypt has been strengthening defenses along its border, including the construction of a walled enclosure. Satellite images showing an area of roughly eight square miles fenced by seven-meter-high walls have provoked speculation that Cairo is preparing for a worst-case scenario — that thousands of Palestinians will have nowhere else to seek refuge except across the border.

"The risk is speculative, but it exists," Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry admitted to me in Munich while trying to downplay the significance of Egypt's move. He reiterated the call being sounded with growing urgency by a chorus of Arab and Western leaders, as well as aid organizations, for Israel to halt any plans for a Rafah ground operation that would create a "humanitarian catastrophe".

The US — which is playing a pivotal role in this process — has been pressing for a hostage deal and a humanitarian pause which it hopes can evolve into a more permanent ceasefire.

Washington and its Arab allies also view it as a vital breathing space to focus on a highly ambitious plan for the "day after" the war ends. That vision — including a Palestinian state, a reformed Palestinian Authority and the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia — would do nothing less than redraw the political map of the Middle East.

For now, minds are concentrated on the growing urgency to find a way out of this mounting crisis in the next few weeks. — BBC

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