United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Israel as he seeks to seal a truce deal to bring the war in Gaza to a halt.
Following meetings the previous day in Egypt and Qatar, both mediating between Hamas and Israel, Blinken landed in Jerusalem on Wednesday on his fifth tour of the tense region since October last year. He will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog, among others, to discuss the Palestinian group’s response to the proposed deal.
Hamas has said previously that any deal must bring about a definitive end to the war. Israel has said it will not halt the war permanently until Hamas is destroyed.
The Palestinian group said in a statement on Tuesday that it had reviewed the “comprehensive ceasefire deal … with a positive spirit”, including details on securing relief and shelter, reconstruction, the lifting of a 17-year-old crippling siege, and the completion of the “prisoner exchange” process.
On Wednesday, an unconfirmed report from Reuters news agency said Hamas has proposed a three-stage ceasefire plan according to which the group would exchange Israeli captives it captured on October 7 for Palestinian prisoners, secure the reconstruction of Gaza, ensure the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and an exchange of bodies and remains.
Blinken will now discuss the response with Israel.
Speaking to reporters in Doha on Tuesday, the US official called the deal “essential”.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done. But we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and indeed essential, and we will continue to work relentlessly to achieve it,” he said.
The same day, Netanyahu’s office said Hamas’s response was being studied.
“Hamas’s reply has been conveyed by the Qatari mediator to the Mossad. Its details are being thoroughly evaluated by the officials involved in the negotiations,” said a statement from Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.
Sources close to the talks have said the proposed truce would last at least 40 days, during which Hamas would free the civilians among the remaining captives being held.
Further phases would follow to hand over soldiers and the corpses of captives in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Hamas’s reported counterproposal envisages a truce lasting 135 days.
A previous truce, in late November, saw Hamas free 110 captives in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
‘Over the top’
Qatar said on Tuesday that Hamas is “generally positive” on the proposed deal, which it brokered alongside Egypt and the US, with Israeli officials also present.
However, there is less optimism in other quarters, reports Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands from occupied East Jerusalem.
“The Qataris are positive a deal is within reach, but if you go elsewhere, I think that positivity starts to fade a bit.”
“The Americans seem to be less positive,” he continued, noting that President Joe Biden was quoted overnight as saying “Hamas’s response seems to be ‘a little over the top’”.
It is thought that Blinken’s efforts will likely meet more significant pushback on Wednesday.
“In Israel, the mood is significantly more negative. Hamas is saying ‘end the war’, Israel is saying ‘no way’,” Challands added.
Blinken will also meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later on Wednesday, with potential post-war scenarios likely to be discussed.
The US insists that a Palestinian state, albeit one not controlled by Hamas, is essential to bring about a lasting peace. Blinken has also emphasised that Israeli integration is integral to the US vision for the region.
However, Netanyahu has suggested that he does not foresee a two-state solution, although he has yet to clearly state his post-war plans.
Under intense political pressure at home, Netanyahu continues to insist that the military campaign will not end until Hamas is destroyed. That means the devastating war could last months at least unless a deal can be brokered or the US, Israel’s biggest supporter, reins in its ally.
Blinken has also arranged to meet privately with Israeli military chief Herzi Halevi. Israeli media suggest that the “unusual” private meeting may be an attempt to gain a more “honest analysis” of the state of the conflict.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has claimed that 18 of 24 Hamas battalions have been dismantled. However, war monitors have questioned that.
The Israeli military, meanwhile, continues to press southwards towards the city of Rafah and the Egyptian border, putting Cairo and the rest of the region on further alert and threatening 1.4 million internally displaced Palestinians crammed into the area seeking safety.
Israel began its military offensive in Gaza after Hamas fighters killed 1,139 people in southern Israel on October 7 and took about 240 captives, according to an Al Jazeera tally based on official Israeli figures.
At least 27,585 people have been confirmed killed in Israel’s military campaign, with thousands more feared buried under rubble, according to health authorities in Gaza.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES