International efforts to end the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, have picked up pace after the Biden administration increased the pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to end the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
A regional official briefed on the process said there could be a ceasefire in a few days, while Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas official, told Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV that he expected a ceasefire to be reached “within a day or two”.
The regional official told the Financial Times that the mediation gathered momentum after US president Joe Biden told the Israeli prime minister on Wednesday that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire”. Netanyahu responded on Wednesday by saying he was “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met”.
“There has been more momentum after Biden’s statement yesterday and I think the Israelis have hit most of their targets,” the regional official said on Thursday. “The US has been helping with the pressure on Israel, they have been involved throughout, but yesterday was the first time they put on real pressure.”
Israel on Thursday continued to launch air strikes on Gaza, where 230 Palestinians, including 104 women and children, have been killed since May 10, according to local health officials. Twelve Israelis have been killed, including two children, as Hamas has fired more than 3,700 rockets into Israel since the conflict erupted last week. However, the scale of attacks from both sides appears to have been reduced overnight.
An Arab diplomat involved in the mediation said they were hoping Israel and Hamas would ease off on hostilities long enough to allow humanitarian aid into the blockaded Mediterranean enclave of 2m people to “test conditions for a longer ceasefire”. Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, visited Israel on Thursday to push for a ceasefire and discuss ways to mediate long-term solutions to the conflict. He also voiced Germany’s support for Israel and its right to self-defence.
The regional official said negotiations over a formal ceasefire hinged on Hamas’s key demands: an end to the evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem; ending restrictions around al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site; and easing the delivery of aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza. Al-Aqsa mosque lies in a compound — known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount — that is sacred to both religions.
The UN, Egypt and Qatar have been involved in shuttle diplomacy between Hamas — which Israel, the US and the EU consider a terrorist group — and the Israeli military. The negotiations had been held up in part by a Hamas demand that Israel stop targeting senior leaders in the militant group with air strikes, the Arab diplomat said.
The Israeli army has tried to kill Hamas military leader Mohammed Deif twice in the current hostilities, the army told Israel’s Hebrew press on Wednesday, but that he escaped both times.
It had also targeted associates of Deif, who is described in the local press as “Israel’s most wanted man”, in a May 12 air strike, the army said earlier. Negotiating a ceasefire before Israel’s military objectives were completed was also a complication, the Arab diplomat said.
Israeli jets on Thursday morning carried out more strikes on targets in Gaza, including what it described as tunnel networks, rocket launchers and a “military operations” room.
Hamas launched short volleys of rockets into Israeli communities adjoining Gaza. An anti-tank missile fired from within Gaza hit a bus that had been used to transport Israeli soldiers on Thursday. One soldier was injured, Army Radio said, and the soldiers had got off the bus “only seconds before,” a witness told the Kan public broadcaster.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin