Why this week could be critical in Gaza war as US vice president shifts tone

World

Kamala Harris’s speech marked a shift in tone and maybe a subtle shift in language, but not much more than that. Yet the week ahead could still be critical.

The vice president spoke of the situation in Gaza as “devastating… a humanitarian catastrophe” and she had some pointed messaging for Israel – “it must increase flow of aid, restore basic services – no excuses”.

She echoed some of what President Joe Biden said on Friday when he called for “more routes to get more and more people the help they need. No excuses”.

There was a tonal shift, but beyond that her speech did not mark a policy change by the American administration.

The vice president was calling for a ceasefire, yes, but she was addressing Hamas, not Israel.

“Hamas claims it wants a ceasefire,” she said. “Well, there is a deal on the table. And as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal.”

The framework of a deal to allow for a six-week ceasefire has been in place for a few weeks now. Despite talks in Doha, Paris and Cairo, the two sides have failed to find the common ground that would allow them to close the deal.

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As we understand it, Israel has not sent a delegation to the latest round of talks this weekend in Cairo because Hamas has yet to respond to specific questions about the number of hostages still alive and about how many of the hostages it is willing to release in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

For context, there are thought to be 134 hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza. The precise number still alive is not clear and Hamas said last week that seven had been killed during an Israeli airstrike.

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Israel holds about 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, according to NGO groups, including 2,070 who have been sentenced for crimes (mostly in military courts), 2,656 remanded and a further 3,558 “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial on the grounds that they plan to break the law in the future.

There are currently more Palestinians held in administrative detention than at any other time in decades.

Hamas had demanded the release of thousands of Palestinians from Israeli prisons in exchange for hostages. This has been the main sticking point in the ceasefire negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was “delusional” and Biden called it “over the top”. The swap ratio is key and unresolved.

And so, despite Harris’s Sunday evening words, there is no obvious shift yet in the talks. With a framework in place, agreement could come fast or it could remain deadlocked.

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US airdrops reflect fundamental failure

Biden’s ice cream parlour hope of a deal by Sunday seems like wishful thinking. The start of Ramadan this coming weekend is a goal for negotiators.

Tension between Israelis and Palestinians is always high in Jerusalem during Ramadan. Quite apart from the relief for Gazans and Israeli hostage families, a ceasefire by Ramadan would help to lower tensions in Jerusalem.

Two things have changed that will have helped to mould Harris’s language. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is spiralling. The White House cannot ignore this. And domestic American politics is now sinking in.

Biden’s campaign team were unquestionably alarmed by the results of the Michigan Democratic primary where a staggering 100,000 people voted “uncommitted” in a coordinated protest of his handling of the Gaza crisis.

Michigan protest organisers in the key swing state where there is a large Muslim population had hoped to garner 10,000 “uncommitted” votes. They managed 10 times as many.

Read more:
Analysis – A fresh truce could be highly significant
Analysis – Airdrops illustrate just how much of a disaster Gaza is
Exclusive: The company making millions from Gaza misery

Senior Israeli war cabinet minister and pre-war opposition leader Benny Gantz arrived last night in Washington for talks over the next few days.

He will meet the vice president and the secretary of state Antony Blinken. Ceasefire progress will be a focus, but possibly succession talks too.

With growing unease – within Israel and beyond – about the suitability of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Gantz is an obvious successor who leads the polls.

This coming week will be critical.

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