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White House says official is discussing release of Hamas hostages in Doha

White House officials said on Tuesday that a US official was in Doha seeking talks with Hamas and Qatari negotiatiors regarding the possibility of a second deal to secure a ceasefire and accompanying release of hostages in the Gaza Strip.

Brett McGurk was engaged in "very serious and intensive discussions" with Qatari officials on that topic, National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a virtual press briefing.

“We are hopeful it will bear fruit and bear fruit soon,” he added.

Such a development would provide a much-needed boost to the Biden administration’s image on the issue of Israel’s military invasion of the Gaza Strip, launched after a deadly Hamas-led terrorist attack in October that left some 1,200 people killed and saw more than 200 kidnapped. Criticism of the Israeli military’s seemingly indiscriminate leveling of whole city blocks across the Gaza Strip is growing in the US, particularly among progressives but also among other groups, including employees of the federal government who are planning a walkout this week to protest the issue.

Arab-American and progressive groups in the US have been livid with the administration for months, accusing the president of only addressing the suffering of Palestinian civilians under Israeli siege as an afterthought.

At the top of Joe Biden’s list of problems remains his relationship with the Israeli government. Despite reporting indicating that he had undercut President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue of holding Israel to the standard of international law when he was vice president, Mr Biden’s current relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is described as frosty — if not outright hostile. The US president is reported to have hung up on his Israeli counterpart in anger last year, ending their regular direct communication.

Biden administration officials have been working overtime to rehabilitate the public perception of their efforts. A report from Axios detailing the call between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu included a quote from Mr Kirby that surprisingly insisted the exchange did not reflect upon their relationship, while also revealing a growing anger in the West Wing centred around Israel’s repeated pattern of ignoring or outright dismissing the stated concerns of US officials, including the president.

Meanwhile, more than 20,000 residents of Gaza are now reported dead amid the Israeli invasion that has been punctuated with calls for the removal and even eradication of the Palestinian population — almost entirely civilian — from backbencher Israeli elected politicians and officials. Statements describing Palestinian non-combatants as “animals” and supporting their removal to Arab countries have fueled allegations of genocide, which Israel is now facing at the International Court of Justice. The Israeli government and their US partners both officialy deny that a genocide is occurring. Few, however, have seriously reckoned in public with the rhetoric coming from some Israeli leaders.

Hamas is thought to still have numerous hostages in the Gaza Strip — access to the hostages by neutral rights and medical groups has been restricted if not cut off entirely by the militants. Several Americans are believed to be among those held by the militants.

Previously, a temporary ceasefire negotiated by the Qataris led to the release of about half of those hostages. Around 25 others have been killed in captivity, according to Israel, with Hamas and Israel’s government trading blame for their deaths. On Monday, the group released a video in which one hostage reads from a script and claims that two others have been killed, blaming an Israeli strike. Israel’s government said that the building identified as holding them had not been targeted.

"We don't attack a place if we know there may be hostages inside," said an Israeli military spokesman.

Israel’s military has, however, already killed three of its own hostages. In December, a statement from Israeli officials confirmed that three hostages released by Hamas had approached Israeli lines bearing a white flag, only to be shot dead by their own countrymen.