The top political leader of Hamas was holding talks with Egyptian officials on Wednesday about a possible truce in its war with Israel in the Gaza Strip, as the United Nations Security Council separately worked frantically to craft a resolution to suspend the fighting that would not draw a veto from Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States.
The talks in Egypt were taking place as concerns in Israel grow over the fate of the dozens of hostages still being held in Gaza, and as pressure grew on the Israelis to stop their military campaign and allow more desperately needed aid into the devastated enclave.
Diplomats at the U.N. Security Council were engaged in their own intense negotiations in New York on Wednesday over a resolution that would call for extended pauses in the war, allow more aid into Gaza by land, air and sea, and urge the immediate release of all the hostages being held by Hamas.
A vote had initially been scheduled for Monday, but was delayed repeatedly, including on Wednesday, and is now not expected until Thursday morning at the earliest.
Council members have been fielding multiple last-minute requests by the Biden administration, according to several diplomats who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The United States vetoed two previous cease-fire resolutions.
The diplomats said the United States was concerned about part of the resolution calling for the establishment of a United Nations monitoring system to screen aid deliveries into Gaza. They said Israel had urged the United States to reject the monitoring system, because it would leave Israel with no role in searching cargo entering Gaza.
Israel has repeatedly said it is concerned that aid deliveries could be used to smuggle weapons into the territory, and that even basic supplies like fuel could be used by Hamas for military purposes.
One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks, said that without Israel’s cooperation, any Security Council resolution would be difficult to put into effect, and that Washington would not approve a measure that removed Israel from the inspection process.
The United Arab Emirates, a member of the Security Council, and Egypt, whose border is used for the majority of aid deliveries, insisted on a U.N. inspection system to speed up the shipments, diplomats said. The current system, the two nations say, is too cumbersome because it requires aid trucks moving through Rafah, a crossing between Egypt and Gaza, to first be inspected at Kerem Shalom, an Israeli border town.
“The point of the resolution is to ensure that aid goes into Gaza, safely, and at scale. Humanitarians have called this a code red moment for the Palestinians in Gaza,” said Lana Nusseibeh, the U.A.E.’s U.N. ambassador, who has been leading the negotiations. “The resolution opens more entry points, because Rafah alone is clearly not sufficient and Egypt is doing an incredible job under extremely challenging circumstances.”
On Wednesday, U.N. officials said they had been able to deliver food aid to a small number of people in Gaza, including food packages to 2,350 people and hot meals to 1,750 people, but that it was far less than was needed. Almost every household in Gaza, which has 2.2 million residents, is facing a severe lack of food and water, they said. Most have been forced from their homes.
“We want to see the guns fall silent so we can reach the people of Gaza who need the most help right now,” a U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, at a news conference in Washington, said on Wednesday that “I hope we can get to a good place” on the U.N. resolution. Asked about sticking points, he said only that the goal was that it “actually advances” efforts to deliver aid “and doesn’t do anything that could actually hurt the delivery of humanitarian assistance, or make it more complicated.”
Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, on Wednesday voiced support for a plan that would ship aid into Gaza through Cyprus in coordination with Israel, after a security inspection. “Opening the maritime corridor between Cyprus and Gaza is both an Israeli interest and an international interest,” Mr. Cohen said.
Representatives of Israel and Hamas were negotiating separately via mediators from Egypt and Qatar on a new cease-fire that could lead to the release of people taken hostage in Israel in a Hamas-led attack on Oct 7. An Israeli official said some progress had been made, but emphasized there was no deal yet.
A senior Hamas official, Basem Naim, said Israel would need to abide by a sustained cease-fire and allow unlimited aid into Gaza before Hamas would start discussing more hostage releases. That demand is a departure from the position Hamas took in an earlier hostage deal that was secured in November, when a hostage release was discussed as part of a wider cease-fire arrangement.
“No negotiations under fire,” Mr. Naim said in a text exchange. He added: “Allow all the needed aid to enter. Then we can start a comprehensive negotiation.”
The comments may have been more opening bid than nonnegotiable demand. A full cease-fire, enacted without preconditions, would be unacceptable for Israel, since it would allow Hamas to remain in control of parts of Gaza. Israel vowed to topple the group after it launched the devastating Oct. 7 attack in which, the Israelis say, some 1,200 people were killed and about 240 abducted.
“Anyone who thinks we will stop is disconnected from reality,” Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said in a statement on Wednesday. “We will not stop fighting until the realization of all the goals we’ve set: eliminating Hamas, freeing our hostages and removing the threat from Gaza.”
Israel initiated the current round of negotiations, said a Hamas official who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks. The remaining civilian hostages, who include some women and elderly people, could be freed in a temporary truce, the official said. But he ruled out the release of captured Israeli soldiers — whom the group views as important bargaining chips — before a comprehensive cease-fire.
Israel is under mounting pressure to reach some agreement. With nearly 20,000 Palestinians reported killed in Gaza, international calls have grown for a cease-fire. The mistaken killing of three hostages by Israeli soldiers last week has heightened domestic pressure to secure another hostage deal.
Israel believes that 129 people, mostly men, are still being held captive in Gaza.
Asked about a hostage deal while traveling in Milwaukee on Wednesday, President Biden told reporters: “There’s no expectation at this point. But we are pushing it.”
A weeklong cease-fire that had allowed the release of dozens of hostages collapsed on Dec. 1 over disagreements about the remaining captives. Israel resumed its bombardment of Gaza, pushing deeper into the south. On Tuesday night, the Israeli military said it had sent thousands of additional troops to Khan Younis, southern Gaza’s largest city, where it says Hamas’s military leaders are hiding.
The United States has been urging Israel to scale back its military campaign after more than two months of intense bombardment and ground operations have led to a humanitarian catastrophe in the enclave. Mr. Blinken reiterated that position on Wednesday.
“We expect to see and want to see a shift to more targeted operations,” he said, “with a smaller number of forces that’s really focused in on dealing with the leadership, Hamas’s tunnel network and a few other critical things.”
Mr. Blinken said that “the last couple of months have been gut-wrenching” and that the United States is “doing everything possible to minimize the harm to those who are caught in the crossfire.”
But Mr. Blinken said the militants also had the power to end the bloodshed, by laying down their arms. “There seems to be silence on what Hamas could do,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Rachel Abrams, Michael Crowley, Abu Bakr Bashir, Liam Stack and Ben Hubbard.