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Biden's top Mideast adviser McGurk heads to Qatar, Egypt for hostage talks

Brett McGurk's trip comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas' terms for a hostage deal.
Brett McGurk, US White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, speaks during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on Nov. 21, 2021.

The White House’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, is visiting Qatar and Egypt this week in search of a deal to free the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas.

McGurk is returning to the region, according to Axios, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected Hamas’ apparent conditions for a hostage release, which include Israel’s full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. 

“If we agree to this, our soldiers fell in vain,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “If we agree to this, we will not be able to guarantee the security of our citizens.” 

When it stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, Hamas is believed to have taken some 240 people hostage. A Qatar-mediated cease-fire deal in late November saw more than 100 of them freed. Of the 132 who remain, Israeli authorities say at least 27 are presumed dead. 

The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States, Egypt and Qatar are pushing the two sides to agree to a “phased diplomatic process” that would begin with the hostage release before leading to the withdrawal of Israeli forces. 

Netanyahu faces increasing pressure to cut a deal with Hamas, whose militants killed 1,200 people on Oct. 7. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has left more than 25,000 dead, according to health officials in the militant-run territory. 

Gadi Eisenkot, a member of the Israeli war cabinet whose son was killed fighting Hamas, said a cease-fire was the only way to secure the release of the remaining hostages. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have argued that military pressure is the best way to secure concessions from the Iran-backed group. 

On Monday, a group of 20 relatives of Israeli hostages stormed an Israeli parliament meeting, demanding lawmakers do more to secure their release. A day earlier, they pitched tents and blocked traffic outside Netanyahu’s private residence in Jerusalem. 

During his trip to Doha, McGurk is expected to meet with Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The Gulf state of Qatar, which has hosted Hamas’ political leaders in its capital for more than a decade, is the primary intermediary in negotiations over the remaining hostages. 

Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and whose intelligence service has contact with Hamas’ military wing, has also led negotiations on the hostages and the delivery of humanitarian aid. McGurk will reportedly meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in Cairo. 

McGurk's visit to the region comes as the administration tries to avert a wider escalation by Iran-backed groups in the Middle East. 

Multiple rounds of US-led airstrikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels have not deterred them from continuing drone and missile attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. The Houthis say they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza and will continue their attacks until Israel ends its war. 

On Monday, the United States announced sanctions on an Iraqi airline it said was supporting Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Also hit with sanctions were several leaders of Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq that the Pentagon blames for a series of drone and missile attacks against US personnel in Iraq and Syria.