Biden hoping for Gaza cease-fire next week

A woman rides a scooter past a graffiti calling for the return of the hostages kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel, in Kfar Saba, Israel, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
A woman rides a scooter past a graffiti calling for the return of the hostages kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel, in Kfar Saba, Israel, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

NEW YORK -- President Joe Biden said Monday that he hopes a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that would pause hostilities and allow for remaining hostages to be released can take effect by early next week.

Asked when he thought a cease-fire could begin, Biden said: "Well, I hope by the beginning of the weekend. The end of the weekend. My national security adviser tells me that we're close. We're close. We're not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we'll have a cease-fire."

Biden commented in New York after taping an appearance on NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers."

Negotiations are underway for a weekslong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to allow for the release of hostages being held in Gaza by the militant group in return for Israel's releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The proposed six-week pause in fighting would also include allowing hundreds of trucks to deliver desperately needed aid into Gaza every day.

Negotiators face an unofficial deadline of around March 10 with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a period that often sees heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Meanwhile, Israel has failed to comply with an order by the United Nations' top court to provide urgently needed aid to desperate people in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said Monday, a month after a landmark ruling in The Hague ordered Israel to moderate its war.

In a preliminary response to a South African petition accusing Israel of genocide, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the tiny Palestinian enclave. It stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.

Israel denies the charges against it, saying it is fighting in self-defense.

Nearly five months into the war, preparations are underway for Israel to expand its ground operation into Rafah, Gaza's southernmost town along the border with Egypt, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought safety.

Early Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the army had presented to the War Cabinet its operational plan for Rafah as well as plans to evacuate civilians from the battle zones. It gave no further details.

Israel said 245 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday. That's less than half the amount that entered daily before the war.

Human Rights Watch, citing U.N. figures, noted a 30% drop in the daily average number of aid trucks entering Gaza in the weeks following the court's ruling. It said that between Jan. 27 and Feb. 21, the daily average of trucks entering was 93, compared with 147 trucks a day in the three weeks before the ruling. The daily average dropped to 57 between Feb. 9 and 21, the figures showed.

The rights group said Israel was not adequately facilitating fuel deliveries to hard-hit northern Gaza and blamed Israel for blocking aid from reaching the north, where the World Food Program said last week it was forced to suspend aid deliveries.

The Association of International Development Agencies, a coalition of over 70 humanitarian organizations working in Gaza and the West Bank, said almost no aid had reached areas in Gaza north of Rafah since the court's ruling.

Israel denies it is restricting the entry of aid and has instead blamed humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza, saying large aid shipments sit idle on the Palestinian side of the main crossing. The U.N. says it can't always reach the crossing because it is at times too dangerous.

The crisis in Gaza has pushed a quarter of the population toward starvation and raised fears of imminent famine, especially in the northern part of Gaza, the first focus of Israel's ground invasion. Starving residents have been forced to eat animal fodder and search for food in demolished buildings.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY SHAKE-UP

The Palestinian prime minister announced the resignation of his government on Monday, paving the way for a shake-up in the Palestinian Authority, which the U.S. hopes will eventually take on a role in postwar Gaza.

Many obstacles remain to making a revamped Palestinian Authority a reality. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were driven from Gaza by Hamas in 2007, has made clear that he would like the PA to govern the enclave after the war. But it is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, and Netanyahu has roundly rejected the idea of putting the authority in charge of the territory.

Abbas accepted the resignation late Monday, the official Wafa news agency announced, but left Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in place at the head of a caretaker government until a successor is named. There was no word on how long that might take.

The move appears to be the first step in a process toward ushering in reforms sought by the United States, as international negotiations ramp up to bring about a cease-fire. The authority, created under interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals in the early 1990s, administers parts of the West Bank but is beset by corruption.

 

"The next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip," Shtayyeh said at a Cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu has vowed to destroy the military and governing capabilities of Hamas -- which has ruled Gaza since 2007. He has called for Israel to maintain open-ended security control in the territory after the conflict, with Palestinian officials in charge of civilian affairs.

The Palestinians have rejected such a limited role and seek an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza -- areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Abbas is expected to choose Mohammad Mustafa, chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund, as the next prime minister. Mustafa is a U.S.-educated economist who has held senior positions in the World Bank and served in senior posts in the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials say he has a good, longstanding working relationship with American officials.

AIR STRIKES INTO LEBANON

The Israeli military said its air force on Monday struck targets of the militant Hezbollah group "deep inside Lebanon," as Lebanese officials said targets were hit near the northeastern city of Baalbek. At least two Hezbollah members were killed in the strikes, an official for the Lebanese militant group said.

The strikes are among the deepest into Lebanon since the Israel-Hamas war began. They come a day after Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed to step up attacks on Hezbollah even if a cease-fire is reached with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The strikes, which came shortly after Hezbollah said its air defenses shot down an Israeli drone, are likely to increase tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border as talks for a cease-fire in Gaza are underway.

In the afternoon, Hezbollah said it retaliated for the airstrikes near Baalbek by firing 60 Katyusha rockets toward an Israeli army division command in Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Israeli military confirmed that dozens of rockets were launched from Lebanon toward Israel on Monday afternoon.

Lebanese security officials said Israel's air force carried out three airstrikes on the outskirts of the village of Buday, near Baalbek, targeting a convoy of trucks. Buday is a Hezbollah stronghold.

A Hezbollah official confirmed that three strikes hit near Baalbek. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. He said the strikes killed at least two members of the group and that one hit a warehouse for food products that is part of Hezbollah's Sajjad Project that sells to people in its stronghold at prices lower than on the market.

Hezbollah later released the names and photographs of two of its fighters without saying where they were killed. The latest deaths raise to nearly 210 the number of Hezbollah fighters who have been killed since the exchanges of fire along the border began on Oct. 8.

A Lebanese army soldier who was off-duty and at home was seriously injured in one of the strikes near Baalbek, a Lebanese official with knowledge of the situation said. The soldier's son was also injured, added that official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share information with journalists.

The airstrikes near Baalbek occurred less than two hours after Hezbollah said its fighters on Monday shot down an Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 drone over its stronghold in a province in southern Lebanon. Another missile fired by Hezbollah toward the drone was intercepted by Israel, and landed near a synagogue in a town close to Nazareth in northern Israel. There were no injuries or damage.

The Israeli army said in a statement later in the day that its fighter jets struck sites used by Hezbollah in the eastern Bekaa Valley. It said they were in retaliation for Hezbollah's firing of a surface-to-air missile at the Israeli drone.

In the afternoon, an Israeli strike hit a car in the southern village of Majadel, near the border with Israel, killing a Hezbollah field commander, an official with the group said. The Israeli army said it killed Hassan Salami, Hezbollah's commander in the Hujair Valley region, adding that he was responsible for carrying out rocket attacks on northern Israel.

Hezbollah's deputy leader Shiekh Naim Kassem warned in a speech Monday that the group has many more weapons to use if Israel expands the war.

Information for this article was contributed by Wafaa Shurafa, Tia Goldenberg, Kareem Chehayeb, Zeke Miller, Bassem Mroue, Melanie Lidman, Josef Federman, Darlene Superville, Abby Sewell and staff writers of The Associated Press.

  photo  A woman and her children walk past a wall with photographs of hostages who were kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel in Jerusalem, Israel, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
 
 
  photo  Palestinian Abdul Rahman Sharif holds the body of his four-year-old son Abdul Rahman Muamm, killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, during his funeral in Khan Younis, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
 
 
  photo  Israelis mourn in grief during the funeral of Sergeant Oz Daniel in Kfar Saba, Israel, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. Daniel, 19, believed to have been among those killed in the initial Oct. 7 Hamas attack, was declared dead by the military, with his remains still in Gaza. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
 
 
  photo  A Palestinian woman prays for a relative killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 

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