Blinken presses Hamas to seal cease-fire with Israel, says ‘the time is now’ for a deal

By MATTHEW LEE, SAMY MAGDY and SAM MEDNICK

JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hiked up pressure on Hamas on Wednesday to accept the latest proposal for a cease-fire with Israel, saying the “time is now” for an agreement that would free hostages and pause the nearly seven months of war in Gaza.

But a key sticking point appeared to remain — whether the deal would completely end Israel’s offensive as Hamas has demanded.

Blinken met with Israeli leaders throughout the day on the last stop of his seventh visit to the region since the war erupted in October, trying to push through what has been an elusive deal between Israel and Hamas. The U.S. and fellow mediators Egypt and Qatar hope to avert an Israeli offensive into the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Throughout months of talks, Hamas has said the freeing of all the hostages it holds must bring a permanent halt to the war and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Mourners carry the bodies of members of the Abu Taha family who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, during their funeral at Al-Salam cemetery, east of Rafah, Gaza Strip. Monday, April 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammad Jahjouh)

A woman holds a banner and shouts slogans with families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza during a protest calling for their return, outside a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and families of hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Monday, April 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammad Jahjouh)

FILE – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel on Oct. 28, 2023. Netanyahu pledged Tuesday, April 30 to launch an incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltering from the almost 7-month-long war, just as cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas appear to be gaining steam. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP, File)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog shake hands during their meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza hold banners and flags during a protest calling for their return, outside a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and families of hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza hold banners and flags during a protest calling for their return, outside a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and families of hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

A woman holds a banner with families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza during a protest calling for their return, outside a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and families of hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

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The proposed deal now at the center of talks raises that possibility, according to leaked details that were confirmed by an Egyptian official and a Hamas official. But Hamas is seeking to strengthen the language to ensure a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from the entire Gaza Strip, the Egyptian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal negotiations. The group said it is likely to give its response to the proposal on Thursday.

In public, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has staunchly rejected stopping the war before Hamas is destroyed. In a sign of the challenges in the negotiations, Netanyahu in his talks with Blinken on Wednesday repeated his vow to launch the offensive on Rafah, which he says is Hamas’ last stronghold in Gaza.

Blinken said Israel has made “very important” compromises in cease-fire efforts and it is now up to Hamas to get the deal done.

“There’s no time for further haggling. The deal is there,” Blinken said, shortly before he was to leave Israel.

Earlier in the day, he said in talks with Israel’s ceremonial President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv that Hamas would bear the blame for any failure to get a deal. “No delays, no excuses. The time is now,” he said.

Blinken said the deal would also allow much needed food, medicine and water to get into Gaza, where the war has sparked a humanitarian crisis, pushed northern Gaza to the brink of famine and driven around 80% of the population of 2.3 million from their homes.

Blinken said there has been “meaningful progress” in efforts to increase the flow of aid. On Wednesday, Israel reopened its Erez crossing for deliveries into northern Gaza for the first time since it was damaged in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Hanging over the cease-fire negotiations is the possibility of an Israeli attack on Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population has fled, cramming into vast tent camps and other shelters. On Tuesday, Netanyahu vowed to go ahead with the assault with or without a cease-fire deal.

“The operation in Rafah doesn’t depend on anything. The prime minister made this clear to Secretary Blinken,” Netanyahu’s office said after the two met Wednesday. Hard-line members of Netanyahu’s coalition, on whom he depends to keep his government in power, have railed against any deal that prevents a Rafah attack as a victory for Hamas.

The United States has staunchly supported Israel’s campaign of bombardment and ground offensives in Gaza since Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Oct. 7 into southern Israel. But the U.S. has grown increasingly critical of the staggering toll borne by Palestinian civilians and has been outspoken against a move on Rafah. American officials say they oppose a major offensive but that if Israel conducts one, it must first evacuate civilians.

In Rafah, Palestinians clung to hope that, after months of reported near-deals, this time a cease-fire would be sealed and avert an attack.

Salwa Abu Hatab, a woman who fled Khan Younis who is now in a tent camp, said she wants to go home.

“Do you think we like life in tents? We are tired and suffering,” she said. “Every day they say there is a truce and negotiations, and in the end it fails. We hope they will succeed this time.”

“If the invasion happens, we do not know where to go,” said Enas Syam, a woman from Gaza City carrying her child in the camp. “There is no safe place left.”

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza continued. Late Tuesday, a strike hit a house in Rafah, killing at least two children, according to hospital authorities. An Associated Press journalist saw the children’s bodies at Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital as their relatives mourned.

The Israel-Hamas war was sparked by the Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. Hamas is believed to still hold around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

Since then, Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and wreaked vast destruction.

Throughout his regional visit, with previous stops in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Blinken urged Hamas to accept the cease-fire proposal, calling it “extraordinarily generous” on Israel’s part.

The proposal lays out three stages of six to seven weeks each, according to details first reported in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group.

The first phase would bring a pause during which Hamas would release women and elderly civilians in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In a series of timed steps, Israeli troops would withdraw from a coastal road in Gaza, then from central Gaza and displaced people would return north.

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In the meantime, talks would start on restoring “a permanent calm,” the Egyptian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal negotiations.

The next stage would bring implementation of the calm, including Hamas’ release of all remaining hostages — soldiers and civilians — and a withdrawal of Israeli forces out of Gaza. The Egyptian official said Hamas sees the language about the withdrawal as too vague and wants to specify a complete withdrawal to avoid different interpretations.

The last stage would see the release of bodies of dead hostages and the start of a five-year reconstruction plan. The plan says that Hamas would agree not to rebuild its military arsenal.

Magdy reported from Cairo and Mednick from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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