In call with PM, Biden stresses his 'clear position' on Rafah

Biden, Netanyahu speak as Hamas says ‘no major issues’ with latest hostage deal draft

Israeli delegation reportedly invited to join Cairo talks in parallel with Hamas team ‘to speed up process’; deal for 33 hostages said on table; Blinken back in region

This combination photo shows US President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo)
This combination photo shows US President Joe Biden, left, on March 8, 2024, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo)

US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening discussed ongoing negotiations to close a deal for the return of hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacre, as the sides await the terror group’s response to the latest proposal.

Hamas’s response is expected in the next few days, and possibly as soon as Monday, with a senior official telling AFP on Sunday that the Palestinian terror group has “no major issues” with the latest proposal from Israel and Egypt for a Gaza truce.

“The atmosphere is positive unless there are new Israeli obstacles. There are no major issues in the observations and inquiries submitted by Hamas regarding the contents” of the proposal, said the Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that a Hamas delegation led by the movement’s senior leader, Khalil al-Hayya, will deliver the group’s response to the truce proposal during a meeting with Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo on Monday.

Egypt has also invited the Israeli delegation to travel to Cairo on Monday to “speed up the process and provide the necessary clarifications,” according to an Egyptian source quoted by Qatari-owned outlet Al-Arabi Al-Jadid.

Egypt, which along with Qatar and the United States has been unsuccessfully trying to broker a new Gaza truce deal ever since a one-week halt to the fighting in November, sent a high-level delegation to Israel on Friday to discuss the latest proposal.

Illustrative: Members of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror groups release Israeli hostages to the Red Cross, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

During his call with Netanyahu, the White House said Biden highlighted the joint statement he organized last week with the leaders of 17 other countries, demanding Hamas immediately release the remaining 133 hostages it is holding in Gaza in what would allow for an immediate truce and relief for civilians in the Strip.

The US president also reiterated his “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security, which was on display during the jointly thwarted Iranian missile and drone attack earlier this month, according to the White House readout.

The White House added that Biden reiterated his “clear position” on Israel’s looming plans for an operation in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah. The US has said it cannot support the operation unless Israel ensures the full protection of the over one million Palestinians sheltering there, and doesn’t believe that Israel will be able to safely evacuate and care for that many civilians.

The two leaders also discussed the opening of additional crossings into northern Gaza later this week to allow more aid into the Strip, which will be critical if Israel goes ahead with its plans for the Rafah operation.

Israel is among the countries US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit as he returns to the Middle East on Monday, on his seventh trip to the region since October 7. The US State Department said Blinken was scheduled to visit Israel and Jordan on Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he departs Joint Base Andrews for Saudi Arabia in the latest Gaza diplomacy push, in Maryland, April 28, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/POOL/AFP)

The terms of the current Israeli-backed proposal for a truce and hostage deal have not been published, but are reported to provide for the release of 33 living hostages who meet a so-called “humanitarian” designation — that is, women, children, men aged over 50 and the sick. In return, Israel would release a far larger number of Palestinian security prisoners, including many with blood on their hands.

Amid fierce debate within the Israeli government as the diplomatic efforts for a deal stepped up over the weekend, Hebrew media channels reported that Jerusalem was willing to make further major concessions such as allowing the return of residents to northern Gaza, and possibly to do so without the preferred checks to prevent Hamas members from returning with them.

Israel has also indicated a willingness to withdraw forces from the so-called Netzarim corridor in central Gaza, according to a Channel 12 report on Saturday.

That report also said the terms being conveyed would provide for a subsequent phase of negotiations, in which an end to the war and the release of all further hostages would be discussed. It stressed that Israel would not have to commit to ending the war as a condition for the initial release of the 33 “humanitarian” hostages.

Hamas has since the November deal conditioned the release of any further hostages on Israel ending the war — a demand Netanyahu has rejected as delusional.

IDF troops operate in the central Gaza corridor, in a handout image published April 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Responding to the Channel 12 report, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Saturday that “Israel did not agree to an end to the war, to a withdrawal from the Strip, or to other demands that Hamas presented.”

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Israel estimates that 129 of those hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and three were rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Strip, but the number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terrorists in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7. The army also says 261 soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground invasion.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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