Antony Blinken returns to Middle East to push for elusive Gaza ceasefire

Sources say Hamas will reject proposal announced by US President Joe Biden last month

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday arrived in Israel, his second stop on a four-country tour of the Middle East, as Washington promotes a Gaza ceasefire proposal outlined by President Joe Biden.

Mr Blinken met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after arriving on Monday evening.

“The secretary reiterated that the United States and other world leaders will stand behind the comprehensive proposal outlined by President Biden that would lead to an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all hostages, and a significant and sustained increase in humanitarian assistance for distribution throughout Gaza,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

The US Secretary of State also met Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, and “underscored the proposal would advance Israel’s long-term security interests, including by enabling the possibility of further integration in the region”.

He arrived in Israel after first stopping in Egypt, where he held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi in Cairo in a diplomatic attempt to try to have the latest peace proposal agreed to.

Sources said Hamas was almost certain to reject Mr Biden's proposal.

“It was agreed that efforts must at this stage be intensified to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and a prisoner and hostage swap,” the Egyptian presidency said of Mr El Sisi's meeting with Mr Blinken.

“The President emphasised the importance of unifying international efforts to remove obstacles facing the delivery of humanitarian aid, the necessity of ending the war on the Gaza Strip and preventing the expansion of the conflict.”

The mention of obstacles facing the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to Israel’s capture on May 7 of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and its control of the entire Gaza-Egypt border.

Egypt has reacted angrily to Israel’s move, closing its side of the crossing – further hampering relief efforts. It insists it will only open the crossing after Israel pulls its troops out of the area.

The latest round of talks between Mr Blinken and Middle East leaders comes after two significant developments in the war – the deadly operation to rescue four hostages held by Hamas and the resignation of popular centrist Benny Gantz from Israel’s war cabinet.

Both events are likely to influence the course of ceasefire negotiations, sources say.

“Gantz's resignation from the cabinet probably complicates his trip,” said Aaron David Miller, a former long-time Middle East analyst at the State Department.

Mr Blinken said Mr Gantz was someone “for whom” he has “deep respect”. He expected to meet the opposition leader on Tuesday morning.

Speaking as he began his tour on Monday, Mr Blinken urged leaders in the region to press Hamas to agree to Mr Biden's ceasefire proposals.

Hamas, he said, was the only outlier in not accepting them.

That suggested Mr Blinken expects US allies and fellow mediators Egypt and Qatar to pressure Hamas to accept the deal.

“My message to governments throughout the region, to people throughout the region, is: If you want a ceasefire, press Hamas to say yes,” Mr Blinken said.

“If you want to alleviate the terrible suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, press Hamas to say yes. If you want to get all the hostages home, press Hamas to say yes.

“If you want to put Israelis and Palestinians alike on the path to more durable peace and security, press Hamas to say yes. If you want to prevent this conflict from spreading, press Hamas to say yes.”

Mr Blinken's arrival in the Middle East came a day after the US urged the UN Security Council to vote on a draft resolution endorsing the plan proposed by Mr Biden.

“Israel has accepted this proposal, and the Security Council has an opportunity to speak with one voice and call on Hamas to do the same,” said Nate Evans, an official for the US mission at the UN.

Current ceasefire deal

Mr Biden’s proposals envisage a six-week ceasefire during which Hamas and Israel enter a hostage and prisoner swap, as well as a significant increase in humanitarian aid for Gaza.

The plan includes a guarantee that negotiations on a permanent ceasefire will begin immediately after the six-week pause ends.

Last week, Hamas said it was studying the proposals, but the militant group will probably reject them, according to the sources.

They said such a position may have become imperative for Hamas after Saturday’s rescue operation in which more than 270 Palestinians were killed, according to Gazan health authorities.

Hamas has effectively suspended formal contacts with the Egyptian and Qatari mediators on the proposals, the sources said.

“Hamas is in a very awkward position after Saturday’s massacre, which threatens to completely derail the negotiations,” said one source.

“Moreover, Hamas finds the US proposals ambiguous and elastic.”

Hamas has previously said it wanted a firm commitment from Israel for a permanent ceasefire and a full withdrawal from Gaza.

There are also concerns that Israeli forces will resume military operations in Gaza after the last hostage is released.

The sources said that Hamas was reluctant to be seen engaged in negotiations so soon after the death of so many people in Israel’s weekend rescue mission.

They said the operation had highlighted gaping holes in Hamas security that allowed Israeli forces to operate in a densely populated urban area in broad daylight.

“Hamas leaders in Gaza must be very busy right now investigating what happened on Saturday and why it happened and whether they need to adjust or change their own security precautions in light of Saturday’s events,” said another source.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday: “It’s hard to say how Hamas will process this particular [rescue] operation and what it will do to its determination about whether it will say yes or not.

“We have not got a formal answer from Hamas at this time.”

The sources, meanwhile, claim Hamas could come back with a demand for Israel to release a larger than anticipated number of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages it is holding, while still insisting on a permanent ceasefire and full Israeli withdrawal.

It could also demand the release of a significantly higher number of high-profile Palestinians serving long prison terms than previously discussed.

Although Mr Biden’s proposed deal has been described as an Israeli initiative and thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in support of it, Mr Netanyahu has expressed scepticism, saying what has been presented publicly is not accurate.

His far-right allies have threatened to bring down his government if he introduces the plan.

International efforts to procure a ceasefire have struggled to get off the ground, save for a week-long truce in November when 105 hostages were released in exchange for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

“There have been almost no high points, maybe in mid-November and the other day's freeing of hostages, but it was a nightmare for Palestinians,” said Mr Miller, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He said that neither Hamas nor Israel has ever appeared too eager to seriously engage in negotiations to end the war.

International efforts to mediate the conflict are “not working”, he added.

Updated: June 11, 2024, 6:31 AM