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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 8 FEBRUARY 2024

Qatar cites progress on hostage talks; Iran likens its links with militia proxies to Nato alliance

Qatar cites progress on hostage talks; Iran likens its links with militia proxies to Nato alliance
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 7 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ronen Zvulun)

Qatar said Hamas had delivered a positive response to a proposal to halt fighting in Gaza in exchange for the release of some Israeli hostages, but a deal may still be far off.

An Iranian diplomat likened Tehran’s alliance of militias across the Middle East to the Nato military alliance, denying that his country had direct control over the groups as they braced for more US strikes against them.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry informed President Joe Biden’s administration there would be no diplomatic ties with Israel unless the “aggression” against Gaza was stopped and Israel recognised the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital.

The US House of Representatives failed to pass a $17.6-billion Israel funding package that has become tied up in a prolonged political battle over Ukraine war aid and border policies. 

Qatar cites progress on Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations

Qatar said Hamas had delivered a positive response to a proposal to halt fighting in Gaza in exchange for the release of some Israeli hostages, but a deal may still be far off.

US President Joe Biden said the response from Hamas was “a little over the top” and emphasised that negotiations hadn’t finished. Hamas and Israel, in talks mediated by Qatar, still have to agree on key issues, including the length of any ceasefire and the number of hostages to be released from Gaza.

Qatar received Hamas’s reply about the general framework for an agreement to release some of the hostages, Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on Tuesday alongside visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

“The response includes some remarks, but overall it is positive,” Al Thani said, without providing more details.  

Hamas wants a 135-day truce that can be rolled out in three stages, Al Arabiya TV reported, citing a draft of the group’s demands. The first stage would involve the release of Israeli civilian hostages, the delivery of more aid to Gaza, and Israeli forces withdrawing from civilian areas in Gaza.

The second would include the release of the remaining hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Gaza, Alarabiya, a Saudi channel, said. The final stage is for another 45 days of ceasefire and the exchange of corpses between Israel and Hamas.

The group wants Qatar, Egypt, the US, Turkey and Russia to be the guarantors of any agreement, Al Jazeera reported.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he won’t accept a complete stop to the war or a full military withdrawal from Gaza. Still, Israeli media cited officials saying they viewed the response as a high opening bid from Hamas that doesn’t preclude continued negotiation. 

Blinken was on his fifth trip to the region since Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and the European Union, attacked Israel on 7 October, killing about 1,200 people and seizing about 240 hostages. The US has sought to ease the fighting and moderate Israel’s response after it launched a punishing military campaign on the Gaza Strip that’s killed some 27,000 people, according to the health ministry there.  

Israeli troops were continuing to attack Hamas militants and infrastructure in and around the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, and the military said they were making progress. It contended that the Hamas brigade in Khan Younis would be broken within a week or so. Then the remaining military target is a Hamas brigade in and around the southern city of Rafah, where more than one million Gazans are clinging to life in tents and temporary shelters. 

Iran diplomat likens its link with militia proxies to Nato

An Iranian diplomat likened Tehran’s alliance of militias across the Middle East to the Nato military alliance, denying that his country had direct control over the groups as they braced for more US strikes against them. 

“The relationship between Iran and the resistance groups in this region may be compared with the Nato treaty,” Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Saeid Iravani, told NBC News in an interview. He delivered his comments with a wry smile, even as regional tensions threatened to boil over.

Iravani was referring to Iran-backed militia groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, referred to as the “Axis of Resistance” in Tehran, which have burst into the global spotlight since Hamas’ 7 October attack on Israel triggered the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Read more: How Iran-backed groups provoke wider Mideast conflict: QuickTake

The Yemen-based Houthis have gone on to upend global trade by attacking shipping in the Red Sea, while persistent attacks on US regional bases blamed on other groups culminated in the killing of three US soldiers in Jordan late last month.

“We have some coordination, cooperation, consultation and maybe some financing,” Iravani said about Iran’s relationship with the proxies. But “they have their own choices”, he said, when it comes to military activities. 

Saudi says no Israeli ties unless Gaza ‘aggression’ halted

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry informed President Joe Biden’s administration there would be no diplomatic ties with Israel unless the “aggression” against Gaza was stopped and Israel recognised the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital.

The position of Saudi Arabia is firm in that the Palestinian people must get their legitimate rights, the ministry said in a statement carried by the kingdom’s news agency SPA late on Tuesday. The war in Gaza forced a pause on the US-led negotiations over a potential normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The statement comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on his fifth trip to the region since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October.

Blinken was in Doha after a stop in Riyadh, where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The top US diplomat said the prince, known as MBS, reiterated the kingdom’s “strong interest” in a normalisation deal with Israel but needed to see a ceasefire in Gaza and a “credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state”.

Read more: Saudis resume US defence talks after pause from Israel-Hamas war 

Israel aid Bill fails in US House as Ukraine impasse deepens

The US House of Representatives failed to pass a $17.6-billion Israel funding package that has become tied up in a prolonged political battle over Ukraine war aid and border policies. 

The Bill, which required a two-thirds majority, fell short with a 250 to 180 vote on Tuesday evening that underscored that there’s no clear or quick path for Congress to approve aid to Israel in its war in the Gaza Strip.  

Biden had threatened to veto the measure because it didn’t include funds for Ukraine, leading most Democrats to oppose it. Many progressives also assailed the Bill because it didn’t include humanitarian aid for Palestinians.

“It is a nakedly obvious and cynical attempt by Maga extremists to undermine the possibility of a comprehensive, bipartisan funding package that addresses America’s national security challenges in the Middle East, Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific region and throughout the world,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and fellow leaders said in a statement.

In his statement, House Speaker Mike Johnson said: “Leveraging Israel aid as it fights for survival is wrong. The White House and congressional Democrats should be ashamed.” 

TikTok executives meet Israeli president over anti-Semitism claims

TikTok executives visited Israel and met its president to address accusations that the social media giant was failing to clamp down on anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas content on its platform.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog presented TikTok’s public policy heads for the Americas and Europe with research indicating the platform was slow to respond, according to a statement from the president’s residence on Tuesday. 

“The representatives were deeply disturbed by the findings of the research and evidence presented during the meeting, and pledged to continue working with the President’s Office and Israeli officials to do everything in their power to eradicate this phenomenon from the platform,” according to the statement referring to TikTok’s Theo Bertram and Michael Beckerman. 

TikTok told Israeli officials that it had deleted 160 million fake accounts peddling disinformation since the war began in October, according to the statement.

The visit came after an Israeli TikTok worker quit the company last week over its response to the Israel-Hamas war, and Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli told reporters last week he believed TikTok’s algorithm actively promoted content hostile to Israel.

TikTok has continued to face questions globally about influence on the popular social media platform, including the influence the Chinese government has on the company due to TikTok’s owner, Chinese tech company ByteDance. TikTok has said it doesn’t share data or alter content on behalf of the country. DM

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