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A poster depicting Israeli hostage Eliya Cohen is displayed at a memorial on the Nova music festival where he was kidnapped to Gaza by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023 in Re'im, southern Israel near the Gaza border, on Feb. 26.Maya Alleruzzo/The Associated Press

Israel and Hamas on Tuesday played down chances of an imminent breakthrough in talks for a ceasefire in Gaza, after U.S. President Joe Biden said Israel has agreed to pause its offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan if a deal is reached to release some hostages.

The president’s remarks came on the eve of the Michigan primary, where he faces pressure from the state’s large Arab American population over his staunch support for Israel’s offensive. Biden said he had been briefed on the status of talks by his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, but said his comments reflected his optimism for a deal, not that all the remaining hurdles had been overcome.

In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, Israel’s air, sea and ground campaign in Gaza has killed tens of thousands of people, obliterated large swaths of the urban landscape and displaced 80% of the battered enclave’s population.

Israel’s seal on the territory, which allows in only a trickle of food and other aid, has sparked alarm that a famine could be imminent, according to the United Nations.

With U.N. truck deliveries of aid hampered by the lack of safe corridors, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and France conducted an airdrop of food, medical supplies and other aid into Gaza on Tuesday. At a beach in southern Gaza, boxes of supplies dropped from military aircraft drifted down on parachutes as thousands of Palestinians ran along the sand to retrieve them.

But alarm is growing over worsening hunger among Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians.

Two infants died from dehydration and malnutrition at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Gaza City, said the spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry, Ashraf al-Qidra. He warned that infant mortality threatens to surge.

“Dehydration and malnutrition will kill thousands of children and pregnant women in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

The U.N. Population Fund said the Al Helal Al Emirati maternity hospital in Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah reported that newborns were dying because mothers were unable to get prenatal or postnatal care. Premature births are also rising, forcing staff to put four or five newborns in a single incubator. Most of them do not survive, it said, without giving figures on the numbers of deaths.

Now the prospect of an invasion of Rafah has prompted global alarm over the fate of around 1.4 million civilians trapped there.

Talks to pause the fighting have gained momentum recently and were underway Tuesday. Negotiators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar have been working to broker a ceasefire that would see Hamas free some of the dozens of hostages it holds in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners, a six-week halt in fighting and an increase in aid deliveries to Gaza.

The start of Ramadan, which is expected to be around March 10, is seen as an unofficial deadline for a deal. The month is a time of heightened religious observance and dawn-to-dusk fasting for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Israeli-Palestinian tensions have flared in the past during the holy month.

“Ramadan’s coming up, and there has been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan as well, in order to give us time to get all the hostages out,” Biden said in an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” that was recorded Monday.

In separate comments the same day, Biden said that he hoped a ceasefire deal could take effect by next week.

At the same time, Biden did not call for an end to the war, which was triggered when Hamas militants killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted roughly 250 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Israeli officials said Biden’s comments came as a surprise and were not made in coordination with the country’s leadership. A Hamas official played down any sense of progress, saying the group wouldn’t soften its demands.

The Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media, said Israel wants a deal immediately, but that Hamas continues to push excessive demands. They also said that Israel is insisting that female soldiers be part of the first group of hostages released under any truce deal.

Hamas official Ahmad Abdel-Hadi indicated that optimism on a deal was premature.

“The resistance is not interested in giving up any of its demands, and what is proposed does not meet what it had requested,” he told the Pan-Arab TV channel Al Mayadeen.

Hamas has previously demanded that Israel end the war as part of any deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “delusional.”

At a news conference in Doha on Tuesday, Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said “we feel optimistic” about the talks, without elaborating.

A senior official from Egypt has said the draft deal includes the release of up to 40 women and older hostages in return for up to 300 Palestinian prisoners – mostly women, minors and older people.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said the proposed six-week pause in fighting would allow hundreds of trucks to bring desperately needed aid into Gaza every day, including to the hard-hit north.

Biden, who has shown staunch support for Israel throughout the war, left open the door in his remarks for an eventual Israeli ground offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, on the border with Egypt, where more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have fled under Israeli evacuation orders.

Netanyahu has said a ground operation in Rafah is an inevitable component of Israel’s strategy for crushing Hamas. This week, the military submitted for Cabinet approval operational plans for the offensive, as well as evacuation plans for civilians there.

Biden said he believes Israel has slowed its bombardment of Rafah.

“They have to, and they have made a commitment to me that they’re going to see to it that there’s an ability to evacuate significant portions of Rafah before they go and take out the remainder Hamas,” he said. “But it’s a process.”

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed more than 29,700 people, most of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. It does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its count.

The first and only ceasefire in the war, in late November, brought about the release of about 100 hostages – mostly women, children and foreign nationals – in exchange for about 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, as well as a brief halt in the fighting.

Roughly 130 hostages remain in Gaza, but Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah said it had launched a volley of rockets at an Israeli aerial surveillance base on Tuesday in response to the Israeli military’s deepest attack yet into Lebanese territory, with no immediate reports of casualties from the rockets.

Israeli warplanes struck the Bekaa Valley on Monday in an intensification of the cross-border hostilities that the war in Gaza triggered in October, prompting the Iran-backed group to respond with rocket fire on both Monday and Tuesday.

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon urged all parties to cease hostilities to avoid further escalation, warning that recent events could put a political solution to the conflict at risk.

The peacekeeping mission, UNIFIL, said it had seen a “concerning shift” in the exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah and said it was engaging with parties to decrease tensions and prevent dangerous misunderstandings.

U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka also urged “de-escalation”, saying the “gradual expansion in the exchange of fire” increased the risks of a broader conflagration.

Two sources familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking told Reuters the group would halt fire on Israel if its Palestinian ally Hamas agreed to a proposal for a truce with Israel in Gaza – unless Israeli forces keep shelling Lebanon.

The base targeted by Hezbollah on Tuesday was the same one it has struck in previous attacks and there was no other sign so far of wider military retaliation by the group.

Israel said it had struck at Hezbollah air defences in the Bekaa on Monday in response to the downing of an Israeli drone that Hezbollah said it had shot down with a surface-to-air missile. The Israeli strike killed at least two Hezbollah members, Lebanese sources said.

Hezbollah then fired 60 rockets on Monday at an Israeli army station in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The group did not say how many rockets were fired on Tuesday morning but said it was a “large volley”.

Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah said on Monday that Israel’s strikes in the Bekaa “will not remain without response”.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Sunday that Israel planned to increase attacks on Hezbollah in the event of a possible ceasefire in Gaza “until the full withdrawal of Hezbollah” from the border.

– with files from Reuters

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