US President Joe Biden’s main adviser on the Middle East said there would be a “significant pause” in the Israel-Hamas war if hostages held by militants in Gaza are freed.
Hamas terrorists seized about 240 hostages on October 7 when they surged across Gaza’s militarised border into southern Israel to kill around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials.
In response, Israel is carrying out a relentless bombardment and ground offensive of targets in the Gaza Strip which has so far killed 12,300 people, according to the Palestinian territory’s Hamas government.
“The surge in humanitarian relief, the surge in fuel, the pause... will come when hostages are released,” Brett McGurk told a security conference in Bahrain.
Release of a large number of hostages would result in “a significant pause... and a massive surge of humanitarian relief,” he said.
McGurk said Biden had discussed the issue on Friday evening with the ruler of the Gulf nation of Qatar, which is leading mediation efforts toward a ceasefire and release of the captives.
The White House said Biden and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani discussed “the urgent need for all hostages held by Hamas to be released without further delay”.
Two days earlier Biden had said he was “mildly hopeful” of reaching a deal to free the hostages, believed to include about 10 US citizens.
French President Emmanuel Macron also discussed the hostages with al-Thani and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday, his office said.
Macron said immediately freeing the captives, of whom eight are French, was “an absolute priority for France”.
The three leaders also talked about strengthening their coordination to deliver aid to civilians in Gaza, Macron’s office said.
So far efforts by Qatar have led to the release of four of the captives. A fifth hostage, a soldier, was rescued in an Israeli operation.
Israel’s Army said this week it had recovered the bodies of two women hostages in Gaza.
McGurk said on Saturday that the situation in the besieged Palestinian territory was “horrific” and “intolerable”.
Israel has refused to heed calls for a ceasefire before all the hostages are released.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who also attended the Bahrain conference, said it was “unacceptable” to link humanitarian pauses to release of hostages.
Meanwhile EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reflected on the future of Gaza, saying, “Hamas cannot be in control of Gaza anymore”.
The Palestinian Authority, based in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, “told me they are ready and willing to take this responsibility” with the help of the international community, said Borrell.
He added that Arab countries should also play a role in any future configuration, both political and economic, for Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israel said Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route on Sunday, raising fears that regional tensions heightened over the Israel-Hamas war were playing out on a new maritime front.
There was no immediate comment from the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel movement in Yemen that threatened earlier on Sunday to target Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea. Last month, Houthi rebels were suspected of sending missiles and drones over the crucial shipping lane of the sea.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said 25 crew members of various nationalities, including Bulgarians, Filipinos, Mexicans and Ukrainians but no Israelis, had been on board the hijacked Bahamas-flagged ship.
Netanyahu’s office condemned the seizure of the Galaxy Leader, a vehicle carrier, as an “Iranian act of terror”.