Egypt's El Sisi warns against Rafah attack as nations issue joint call for hostage release

US official blames Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar for failure to reach ceasefire deal

Israeli troops near Rafah on Thursday. Israel says its troops must enter the city to complete its goal of destroying Hamas’s remaining forces. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi warned on Thursday against forcing Palestinians in Gaza to flee into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as an Israeli ground offensive on the border city of Rafah appeared imminent.

An estimated one million Palestinians displaced by Israel's six-month-old war in Gaza have sought refuge in Rafah.

Israel says its troops must enter the city to complete its goal of destroying Hamas’s remaining forces and freeing the rest of the hostages seized from southern Israel in October. Four of the six remaining Hamas battalions are stationed in Rafah, it says.

The US and 17 other nations on Thursday called on Hamas to release the hostages and accept a ceasefire deal currently on the table as a way of ending the war, allowing displaced Palestinians to return to their homes and increasing the entry of aid into Gaza, which has been devastated by the conflict.

“We emphasise that the deal on the table to release the hostages would bring an immediate and prolonged ceasefire in Gaza,” the statement said.

“That would facilitate a surge of additional necessary humanitarian assistance to be delivered throughout Gaza, and lead to the credible end of hostilities.”

Egypt, Qatar and the US have for months been trying to broker a ceasefire in Gaza, to no avail, with both Israel and Hamas refusing to make concessions. Hamas insists that the deal must entail a full Israeli withdrawal and a permanent ceasefire, a demand Israel has dismissed as delusional.

The plea to Hamas came amid increasing signs that Israel is preparing to launch a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah, which Egypt, the US and UN have warned would significantly increase civilian casualties in Gaza and deepen its humanitarian crisis.

“The Egyptian position is clear from the beginning: we completely reject any forced eviction of Palestinians from their land into Sinai or anywhere else so as to prevent the liquidation of the Palestinian cause and protect Egypt’s national security,” President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said in a televised address to mark the 42nd anniversary of the liberation of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel captured from Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Egypt is meanwhile continuing efforts to resume negotiations on a peace deal, which have been suspended for nearly two weeks.

Sources familiar with the mediation process said officials from Israel’s spy agency Mossad and its domestic counterpart, Shin Bet, were in Cairo on Wednesday. They held talks with officials from Egypt’s intelligence agency that mostly focused on the situation in Rafah and prospects for a resumption of the Gaza ceasefire negotiations, the sources told The National.

A senior US official blamed Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, for the failure to reach a deal in several rounds of ceasefire talks hosted in Cairo, Paris and Doha, saying a truce proposal had been worked out "in meticulous detail".

“There have been a number of times where the negotiations have made significant progress outside with Hamas leaders, you know, living in fancy hotels,” the official said in a call with journalists on Thursday.

“But Sinwar is the ultimate decision-maker, and when the question goes to him, whether or not you’re going to sign up … the answer that comes back from Sinwar personally, is no,” the official said.

“There's a deal on the table, it meets nearly all of the demands that Hamas has had, including key elements.

“What they need to do is release the vulnerable category of hostages to get things moving.”

About 100 of the hostages were freed in late November as part of a week-long pause brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar. Those still in Gaza, including women, children, the elderly and Israeli soldiers, are believed to be held by Hamas as well as other armed groups. Their locations are largely unknown.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israeli launched its military offensive in response to the Hamas raids on October 7. The attack left some 1,200 people dead and Hamas fighters also kidnapped and took back to Gaza about 240 people, mostly Israelis.

Updated: April 26, 2024, 5:33 AM