Israel waiting on Hamas on proposed halt to fighting before sending team to Cairo

By Thomson Reuters Apr 30, 2024 | 5:12 AM

By Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/CAIRO (Reuters) – Israel is waiting for Hamas to respond to proposals for a halt to the fighting in Gaza and a return of Israeli hostages before sending a team to Cairo to continue talks, a person close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

With U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken due to arrive in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening following a visit to Riyadh to help broker a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, pressure has been building for an agreement to stop the war as it nears the end of its seventh month.

Expectations that an agreement could be in sight have grown in recent days following a renewed push led by Egypt to revive stalled negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

But so far, there has been little sign of agreement on the most fundamental difference between the two sides, the Hamas demand that any deal must ensure a withdrawal of troops and a permanent end to the Israeli operation in Gaza.

“We can’t tell our people the occupation will stay or the fight will resume after Israel regains its prisoners,” said a Palestinian official from a group allied with Hamas. “Our people want this aggression to end.”

For Netanyahu, any move is likely to be affected by divisions in his own cabinet between ministers pressing to bring home at least some of the 133 Israeli hostages left in Gaza, and hardliners insisting on the long-promised assault on remaining Hamas formations in the southern city of Rafah.

But Israeli officials say that the operation in Rafah will go ahead unless Hamas accepts the deal on offer – which includes no definitive ceasefire but the return of 33 vulnerable hostages in exchange for a much larger number of Palestinian prisoners and a limited pause in the fighting.

“As far as Israel is concerned, this is the last chance to hold off a Rafah sweep. The IDF has already started mobilizing troops for that operation,” said a second Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

Netanyahu’s position has also been complicated by talk that the International Criminal Court (ICC) may be preparing arrest warrants for himself and other senior Israeli leaders on charges related to the conduct of the war.

The ICC has so far said nothing to confirm the speculation, which prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz to warn Israeli embassies abroad to bolster their security.

But it underlined fears in Israel of growing isolation over the fighting in Gaza, which has caused mounting international alarm at the scale of destruction and the prospect of a slide into a wider regional conflict.

The Israeli campaign, launched after Hamas-led gunmen rampaged through communities around Gaza, killing some 1,200 Israelis and foreigners and taking 253 into captivity, has so far killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health authorities there, and laid waste to much of the enclave.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)