William Burns
William BurnsReuters

CIA director William Burns said on Monday that reaching a ceasefire and hostage deal in Gaza is critical to addressing the massive humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

“The reality is that there are children who are starving,” Burns said during the Senate’s worldwide threats hearing on Capitol Hill, as quoted by Politico.

“They’re malnourished as a result of the fact that humanitarian assistance can’t get to them. It’s very difficult to distribute humanitarian assistance effectively unless you have a ceasefire,” he added.

The CIA director, who returned home from the Middle East Saturday night as part of his eighth trip to try and negotiate an end to the fighting in Gaza, said the parties are trying to broker a deal for a six-week ceasefire in Gaza that would allow for the release of 40 hostages as well as Palestinian Arab prisoners being held in Israel.

Under intense questioning by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) about whether he believed Israel was “exterminating the Palestinian people”, Burns said he understood “Israel’s need to respond” to the attack by Hamas.

“But I think we all also have to be mindful of the enormous toll this has taken on innocent civilians in Gaza,” he added, according to Politico.

The US has pushed for a deal that would see a ceasefire in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza, but Hamas has so far rejected the deal.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Hamas’ political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, accepted the proposed deal for a ceasefire in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages, but the organization's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, rejected it.

Haniyeh, who is based in Qatar, has reportedly been willing to accept a six-week pause in the fighting in order to secure greater humanitarian aid and possibly use that time to secure a permanent ceasefire that would leave Hamas in power in Gaza.

Sinwar, who has been hiding in Gaza for months, believes that more concessions can be wrung out of Israel due to political divisions within the country. Both Arab and Israeli officials fear that he is deliberately undermining the negotiations.

During his visit to the region last week, Burns met with Mossad chief David Barnea. In a statement in the name of the Mossad following the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office said that Hamas seems uninterested in a hostage swap deal.

"Mossad chief David Barnea met Friday with the head of the CIA, Bill Burns, as part of the unending efforts to advance another agreement to bring back the hostages," the statement read.

"At this stage, Hamas is redoubling its position as one who is not interested in a deal and is aiming to ignite the region during Ramadan, at the expense of the Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

"It should be emphasized that at all times, the negotiations and cooperation with the brokers are ongoing, in an attempt to reduce the gaps and advance agreements."