A senior US official has insisted Hamas must release a large number of hostages before there can be a “significant pause” in Israel’s offensive on Gaza or a surge of aid into the strip, underscoring the deep divide between Washington and its Arab allies.
Brett McGurk, the White House’s Middle East adviser, said “simply calling for a ceasefire” — as Arab states repeatedly have — is “not a path to peace,” adding that the onus was on Hamas to free their captives.
“The surge in humanitarian relief, the surge in fuel, the pause in fighting will come when hostages are released,” McGurk told a conference in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.
“Imagine if someone took your family members and then told you to get them back you had to give them XYZ; and you are being advised to just give them XYZ anyway without any promise of your family members being released.”
His comments contrasted starkly with Arab leaders who have pressured the US to call for a ceasefire after almost 11,500 people were killed in Israel’s assault on Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.
Senior officials from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two of Washington’s important Arab partners, sat on the same panel as McGurk and accused Israel of violating international laws.
Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi said Israel was taking “2.3mn Palestinians hostage”, a reference to the population of Gaza.
“This is not a time for mincing words . . . this not self-defence, this is a blatant aggression, the victims of which are innocent civilians,” Safadi said. “There is a catastrophe happening . . . It’s got to stop for the sake of Palestinians, for the Israelis and for the whole region to be able to live in peace.”
On the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue conference, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan “called on the international community to take a stance against all flagrant violations of international humanitarian law practised by the Israeli occupation forces against civilians in Gaza”, according to Saudi state media.
Israel launched its air and land offensive on the strip after Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. The Palestinian Islamist group, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, also seized about 240 hostages.
The US and Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political office, have been facilitating negotiations to secure the release of dozens of civilian hostages under a deal that would lead to Israel pausing its offensive and allowing more aid into the strip.
Hamas also wants Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons released.
People close to the negotiations have said talks were progressing, but they stalled repeatedly over details. These include Hamas’s demand for a five-day pause while Israel has proposed a shorter period; and which Palestinian prisoners should be released and where they would go, a person briefed on the talks said.
McGurk said the negotiations were “intensive and ongoing”.
He added that the release of many of hostages “would result in a significant pause in fighting and a massive surge of humanitarian relief — hundreds and hundreds of trucks on a sustained basis entering Gaza from Egypt”.
Israel has only allowed a trickle of aid into Gaza since the war erupted as the humanitarian crisis in the strip has deepened.
More than 1.5mn people have been displaced and Israeli officials said they would expand the land offensive in the coastal enclave’s south, where they ordered Palestinians to flee when the ground assault initially focused on the strip’s densely populated north.
Since the October 7 attack, Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and indicated that it would not stop until it achieved its aims.
The Biden administration has staunchly backed Israel’s military offensive, while calling on it to do more to protect civilians and to abide by international humanitarian law.
McGurk said the US had been working to get more aid into Gaza.
But Arab officials say it is impossible to defeat Hamas, which is deeply embedded in Palestinian society, and that the suffering of Gazans risks triggering more militancy and stoking regional instability.
They also suggest the US employs double standards when it comes to Israel.
“Denial of food, medicine, fuel to Gaza, is war crime,” Safadi said. “International law has to apply to all, the message . . . is Israel can do whatever it wants.”
Another senior Arab official told the Financial Times “we are very frustrated” with the US, adding it was enabling Israel to use aid as “an additional lever” to collectively punish civilians.
The official said there were concerns that the level of anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds over the suffering of Gazans was creating threats to their domestic, as well as regional, security.
“They cannot eradicate Hamas and if they do, it sets the stage for something worse, not just in Gaza, because of the suffering they will create the same rage they feel in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world,” the official said. “Israel will end up becoming less secure, not more.”
The official added that the US should be worried about “losing a whole generation of Arabs”.