Blinken heads to Middle East to sell Gaza ceasefire deal


By Tom BatemanState department correspondent

grey placeholderEPA US Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuEPA

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited Cairo and Jerusalem as he attempts to build regional support for a draft Gaza peace deal recently unveiled by President Joe Biden.

The top American diplomat met with foreign leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on his eighth visit to the Middle East since the start of the war in Gaza.

Mr Blinken said his message to leaders in the region was: “If you want a ceasefire, press Hamas to say, yes.”

Mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the US have been attempting to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas for months.

But Mr Netanyahu has not endorsed the US proposal yet, either.

A readout of Mr Blinken’s meeting with Mr Netanyahu says that the American diplomat emphasised the importance of a post-conflict plan for Gaza and of preventing the conflict from spreading.

“He reiterated that the proposal on the table would unlock the possibility of calm along Israel’s northern border and further integration with countries in the region,” the State Department said.

Israel’s prime minister has vowed to resist any such deal until Hamas’s military and governing capabilities are destroyed and all hostages are released.

On Saturday, Israel’s forces, backed by air strikes, freed four more captives after fighting intense gun battles with Hamas in and around the Nuseirat refugee camp.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said the raid killed 274 people, including children and other civilians. Israel says fewer than 100 people died in the operation.

After the offensive, Hamas’s political leader said the group would not agree to a ceasefire deal unless it achieved security for Palestinians.

Mr Blinken is using his trip to argue that Hamas is the sole obstacle to the agreement of the ceasefire-for-hostage release deal that the US desperately seeks.

“Does Hamas want to end this conflict, end this war that it started, or not? We’ll find out,” he said.

“But it’s clear that virtually the entire world has come together in support of the proposal.”

The three-phase plan set out 10 days ago by Mr Biden would involve a six-week ceasefire that would become permanent, and the rebuilding of Gaza with international assistance.

The president called it Israel’s proposal, in an attempt to effectively bounce the two sides into progress, and his administration claims the text is “nearly identical” to one endorsed by Hamas last month.

Hamas is likely to demand guarantees the plan would lead to a permanent ceasefire and full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Its political leadership in Doha has yet to formally respond to the proposal, according to US and Israeli officials, so it remains to be seen whether indirect negotiations can resume.

During its 7 October attacks in southern Israel, Hamas killed about 1,200 people and took some 251 people hostage.

Some 116 remain in the Palestinian territory, including 41 the army says are dead.

A deal agreed in November saw Hamas release 105 hostages in return for a week-long ceasefire and some 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

The Hamas-run health ministry says the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 37,000.

Grief in Gaza as scores killed in IDF hostage raid

While Mr Biden presented the peace initiative as an Israeli one, the US also knows Israel’s own fractious ruling coalition is approaching the plan with much reluctance.

This extends to outright opposition by some far-right ministers who are threatening to trigger a collapse of the government if the deal progresses.

America’s chief diplomat is therefore flying into the thick of a political storm in Israel with few signs of a breakthrough on the truce proposal. The resignation of former general Benny Gantz from the war cabinet on Sunday has deepened the sense of instability around Prime Minister Netanyahu, with whom the White House has become exasperated over the course of the war.

For officials in Washington, Mr Gantz had become a preferred point of contact. He quit after giving Mr Netanyahu an 8 June deadline to meet his demands. Many of his objections to Mr Netanyahu’s handling of the war – including over a lack of any meaningful governance plan for a post-Hamas Gaza – closely mirrored those of the Biden administration.

On Sunday, Mr Gantz accused the prime minister of putting his political survival ahead of the national interest, keeping Israel “from achieving real victory”. Mr Netanyahu fired back that this was not a time for colleagues to quit but to “join forces”.

Mr Gantz’s resignation pulls the Israeli government’s centre of gravity back towards the far-right, although it remains unclear how his move will affect the pressure Washington can bring to bear on Mr Netanyahu, with its chief goal still being to build backing for the truce agreement.

In Cairo, Mr Blinken met President Sisi, whose mediators he said had been in touch with Hamas only hours before their conversation.

A statement from the president’s office stressed the need to lift obstacles to humanitarian aid for Gazans.

“Deal or no deal, it remains absolutely essential that we get more aid to Palestinians who need it,” Mr Blinken told reporters following the meeting.

Mr Sisi has also been pressing for progress on the issue of the Rafah border crossing.

The gate from Egypt is a lifeline for humanitarian aid entering Gaza and is also the only international exit route for wounded Palestinians, small numbers of whom have been able to leave over the course of the war for hospital treatment in Egypt. It has also been the primary route by which international aid teams have travelled in and out of Gaza.

The Rafah crossing has remained closed since Israel captured and occupied the crossing from Hamas forces last month, in a move which has outraged the Egyptian leadership.

Egypt has been demanding officials from the internationally-recognised Palestinian Authority are put in control of the Rafah crossing, a move so far rejected by Israel. The longer the standoff remains unresolved, the worse the risks become of a crisis between Israel and Egypt, who made peace five decades ago and whose longstanding treaty agreements are critical in trying to maintain regional stability.



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