Home News As Israel prepares to invade Rafah, negotiators try again to reach ceasefire

As Israel prepares to invade Rafah, negotiators try again to reach ceasefire


As international diplomats gathered in the Middle East on Sunday to seek a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, Israel was considering whether to proceed with a ground incursion into Rafah, Hamas’s last bastion in the enclave, according to Israeli officials and analysts.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said they plan to enter Rafah, but over the weekend they made clear they were willing to delay if it meant they could secure the release of Israeli hostages taken during an Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said on Sunday that while “getting into Rafah is important for the long-term battle with Hamas”, freeing the remaining hostages, estimated to number around 100, “is urgent and far more important of”.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet with officials from six Arab countries, a U.S. official said Blinken’s first priority will be reaching a ceasefire that includes the release of all hostages.

“This will allow for the release of all the hostages,” U.S. national security spokesman John Kirby said in an interview. “This Week,” ABC News. “Of course, it’s also to make it easier for aid to get into Gaza, especially the north. So he’s going to work very, very hard.”

Israel has been facing intense international pressure – including from the United States – not to invade Rafah in southern Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians have fled the war and live in already dire conditions.

On Sunday, that pressure seemed to be mounting.

Israeli officials are increasingly convinced that the International Criminal Court is preparing to issue arrest warrants for senior government officials on charges related to the conflict with Hamas, according to five Israeli and foreign officials. Israeli and foreign officials also believe the court is considering issuing an arrest warrant for Hamas leaders.

On Sunday, hours after Blinken set off, President Biden again spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about ceasefire talks. “The leaders discussed Rafa and the president reiterated his clear position,” the White House said in a statement about the call.

Three weeks ago, Biden told Netanyahu he would Reconsider U.S. support Military operations in Gaza will suffer if Israel does not do more to limit civilian casualties and improve the flow of much-needed food and other supplies into the ravaged enclave. Humanitarian aid to Gaza has increased significantly since then, although U.S. officials acknowledge more is needed.

The Israeli army has begun operations Recruiting reservists Israeli officials have said its forces may begin evacuating civilians by the end of the month. But the official said the withdrawal could take weeks, and Israel was using the threat of upcoming military drills to pressure Hamas into a hostage deal.

Another Israeli official said the government was sending a message that Israel would no longer wait for a deal and that the hostages needed to be released if Hamas wanted to avoid an attack on Rafah. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

Ceasefire talks have appeared to be at an impasse in recent weeks as the death toll in Gaza has climbed. Hamas-led attacks on Israel in October killed about 1,200 people. Gaza health officials have now put the death toll at more than 34,000.

During his trip to the Middle East, Blinken is expected to meet with officials from countries including Egypt and Qatar. These countries act as intermediaries for Hamas in ceasefires and hostage negotiations. Blinken will attend a three-day meeting of the World Economic Forum and may meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the war. He then plans to travel to Jordan and Israel.

An Israeli official said on Sunday that Egypt was particularly concerned about an invasion of Rafah, which borders its territory, and that Egypt had been consulting with Israel and was pushing for a proposal for a two-stage hostage deal.

According to Israeli officials, the proposal involves a preliminary “humanitarian” deal for Hamas to release the most vulnerable hostages – women, children, the mentally and physically ill and the elderly – in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and the release of those held by Israel. of Palestinian prisoners.

The official said that after the first phase, negotiations could begin a second phase in which all remaining hostages would be returned in exchange for an end to the war.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas, Qatar or Egypt on the details of the proposal. But Hamas and Qatari mediators appear to be increasingly trying to engage directly with the Israeli public, perhaps to increase pressure on the government to reach a deal.

Recently, Hamas released two Promotional video Among them were three hostages. In a rare interview with two Israeli news outlets this weekend, a Qatari foreign ministry spokesman blamed Israel and Hamas for months of deadlock in negotiations.

“We would like to see greater flexibility,” spokesman Majed al-Ansari said. Tell “Haaretz” said, “From the first day, both sides have been more serious and committed throughout the process.”

Analysts say Rafah’s calculations are complicated for Israel.

“Without going deep into Rafah, nothing seems to be getting done,” said Nachman Shai, a former Israeli government minister and military spokesman.

After six months of war, Hamas’s leadership remains largely intact, although most of its battalions have been disbanded or weakened, he said.

However, a ground invasion of Rafah could have unpredictable results. Shea said that could force Hamas leaders believed to be hiding there to release hostages, but could also lead them to cancel any deal.

Report contributors: Peter Baker, Vivek Shankar and Aurelien Breeden.

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