US and 17 other countries with hostages in Gaza call for their release in exchange for a ceasefire

Israelis protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv Feb. 21, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

by Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration released a call from the leaders of 18 countries with citizens held hostage in Gaza calling for their immediate release in exchange for “an immediate and prolonged ceasefire” that would lead to the “end of hostilities.”

Israel, which has the most citizens among the more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza, is not among the participants in the joint call. While the statement hews to conditions Israel has accepted for a hostage deal in the short term, it does not refer to Israel’s other goal in the war, which is to remove Hamas from power.

“We welcome the joint statement that calls for the immediate release of our hostages,” an Israeli government official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. A National Security Council official told JTA that “Israel has been part of the discussions from the beginning, and is very supportive.”

The Biden administration’s leadership in the joint call is significant because President Joe Biden Biden has, since the outset of the war, repeatedly backed Israel’s twin goals: the release of the hostages and the removal of Hamas. But the war has progressed and the devastation on civilians has mounted, Biden has faced calls from among Democrats to press Israel into a ceasefire, and tensions have mounted between the Israeli and U.S. governments.

Now, the statement’s call for an “immediate and prolonged ceasefire” that would “lead to the credible end of hostilities” seems in contradiction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeatedly stated determination to launch a major operation in Rafah, the city on the Gaza-Egypt border, where Israel says substantial Hamas forces remain.

The statement comes the day after the public release of the first proof of life of an American Israeli hostage, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, and President Joe Biden’s meeting with Abigail Mor Edan, a 4-year-old American Israeli whose parents were among those killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that launched the war and who was held hostage until a 10-day ceasefire in November.

“We call for the immediate release of all hostages held by Hamas in Gaza for over 200 days,” said the statement, released at 9 a.m. ET, and read aloud to reporters by a senior administration official just before then.

“They include our own citizens.  The fate of the hostages and the civilian population in Gaza, who are protected under international law, is of international concern,” it says. “We emphasize that the deal on the table to release the hostages would bring an immediate and prolonged ceasefire in Gaza, that would facilitate a surge of additional necessary humanitarian assistance to be delivered throughout Gaza, and lead to the credible end of hostilities. Gazans would be able to return to their homes and their lands with preparations beforehand to ensure shelter and humanitarian provisions.”

The signatories in addition to the United States are Britain, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain and Thailand.

A hostage deal on offer for weeks, and which Israel has accepted, would trade hostages for Palestinians imprisoned on security offenses by Israel for a ceasefire that would last up to six weeks, and would allow Palestinians, many of whom have taken refuge in Rafah, to return to their homes. It would also facilitate the entry of assistance into the strip, which world health authorities say remains on the verge of famine. The exchange of hostages for Palestinian detainees would be phased, according to reports.

“We strongly support the ongoing mediation efforts in order to bring our people home,” the statement concluded.  “We reiterate our call on Hamas to release the hostages, and let us end this crisis so that collectively we can focus our efforts on bringing peace and stability to the region.”

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