Government takes cautious approach amid reports of Israel-Hamas pause

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Israel, the United States and Hamas have reached a tentative agreement to free dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting, The Washington Post reported on Sunday, citing people familiar with the deal.

However, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American officials said no deal had been reached yet.

Tens of thousands of people marched for the sixth Sunday in a row from the State Library of Victoria through the streets of Melbourne in support of Palestine.Credit: Chris Hopkins

Foreign Minister Penny Wong reacted cautiously to the reported temporary freeze in hostilities and declined to comment, as did her opposition counterpart Simon Birmingham.

In a carefully worded statement issued late on Sunday evening, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Australia had been clear about its support for humanitarian pauses of hostilities so food, water, medicine, fuel and other essential assistance could reach people and so civilians could reach safety.

“We support the ongoing efforts of international partners to prevent the conflict from spreading, including next steps towards a ceasefire, but this cannot be one-sided,” they said.

“Australia continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry called for Hamas to be vanquished, while the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network called for the ceasefire to be made permanent.

Thousands of people took to the streets in Australian capital cities including Sydney and Melbourne on Sunday, rallying support for Palestine, calling for a ceasefire and criticising the federal Labor government’s response to the conflict.

Greens deputy leader Mehreen Faruqi, who spoke at the rally in Melbourne’s CBD, described Israel’s attack on Gaza as a show of “depravity and inhumanity” and accused the federal government of being on the wrong side of history.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters marched in cities around the country on Sunday.Credit: Chris Hopkins

The Post reported the hostage release could begin within the next several days, barring last-minute hitches, according to people familiar with the detailed, six-page agreement.

Under the agreement, all parties would freeze combat operations for at least five days while 50 or more hostages, of about 240, are released in groups every 24 hours.

The pause also is intended to allow a significant amount of humanitarian aid in, the newspaper said, adding the outline for the deal was put together during weeks of talks in Qatar.

But Netanyahu told a press conference on Sunday (AEDT): “Concerning the hostages, there are many unsubstantiated rumours, many incorrect reports. I would like to make it clear: as of now, there has been no deal. But I want to promise: when there is something to say, we will report to you about it.”

A White House spokesperson also said Israel and Hamas have not yet reached a deal on a temporary ceasefire, adding the US is continuing to work to get a deal. A second US official also said no deal had been reached.

APAN’s president Nasser Mashni, who attended the rally in Melbourne, welcomed the pause but cautioned it was for just five days.

“It may give civilians being bombarded by Israel a chance to eat, drink and it may give their loved ones here a moment to catch their breaths, but it implies the bombing and war crimes will then continue. This is no comfort to our community or the Palestinian people,” Mashni said.

“We need an immediate ceasefire. We need unrestricted, adequate humanitarian aid, including fuel, for Gaza. We need an end to the blockade of Gaza, to illegal settlements and settler violence in the West Bank. And we need an international commitment to self-determination for Palestine.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s co-chief executive Alex Ryvchin said Israel was in the midst of an operation that had the dual aim of rescuing 241 hostages and “destroying Hamas, its leadership, the October 7 masterminds and killers and its ability to wage war and terror ever again”.

“The release of some hostages in exchange for a short respite would be a victory of Israeli might and we have every confidence in the Israeli Defence Force to complete its mission, vanquish the enemy, bring the hostages home and restore peace for the people of Israel.”

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has divided Australia’s major political parties, with the opposition demanding strong support for Israel, the Greens calling for greater action from the government to encourage a ceasefire and the federal government attempting to walk a tightrope between showing strong support for Israel and calling for that ceasefire.

Last week, Wong called for “steps towards a ceasefire” between Israel and Gaza, a comment that infuriated Jewish groups that believe a ceasefire would keep terrorist group Hamas in power.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong infuriated some with calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

That prompted Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to slam Wong for making “reckless” comments. He asked Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about his support for a ceasefire, but the prime minister said Wong’s remarks were in line with parliament’s bipartisan condemnation of Hamas and support for civilian life.

At the same time, ministers Tony Burke, Ed Husic and Anne Aly have spoken out about the plight of ordinary Palestinians living in Gaza as Israel has ramped up its attacks on Hamas in the territory.

US President Joe Biden, who has opposed a ceasefire, was looking to the end of the conflict, saying in a Washington Post opinion article that the Palestinian Authority should ultimately govern both Gaza and the West Bank.

Asked about Biden’s proposal, Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv the Palestinian Authority in its current form was not capable of being responsible for Gaza. Israel has not disclosed a strategy for Gaza after the war.

Netanyahu said the Israeli military would have “full freedom” to operate within the territory after the war. The comments again put him in conflict with US visions for a post-war era in Gaza.

The war, now in its seventh week, was triggered by Hamas’ October 7 attack in southern Israel, in which militants killed about 1200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted some 240 men, women and children. Fifty-two soldiers have been killed since the Israeli offensive began.

More than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to Palestinian health authorities. Another 2700 have been reported missing, believed buried under rubble.

with Reuters

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