Israeli delegation said expected in Cairo Tuesday

Blinken hopes Hamas takes Israel’s ‘extraordinarily generous’ truce offer

Cameron: Deal could see thousands of Palestinian prisoners freed; Israel said to drop demand for 40 hostages to 33 after assessing some have died; Blinken: Progress on Israeli-Saudi ties

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a panel during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a panel during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Hamas on Monday to swiftly accept Israel’s latest and “extraordinarily generous” proposal for a Gaza truce to secure a release of hostages, amid a diplomatic drive to halt the Israel-Hamas war.

Hamas negotiators were expected to meet Qatari and Egyptian mediators in Cairo on Monday to deliver a response to the phased truce proposal Israel presented at the weekend, ahead of a threatened Israeli assault on the southern border city of Rafah.

A senior Hamas official said Sunday the Palestinian terror group had no “major issues” with the most recent truce plan.

“Hamas has before it a proposal that is extraordinarily, extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel,” Blinken said at a special meeting of the World Economic Forum held in the Saudi capital Riyadh. “And in this moment the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas.”

“They have to decide and they have to decide quickly,” he added. “I’m hopeful that they will make the right decision.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who was also in Riyadh for the WEF meeting, described the Israeli proposal as “generous.”

It included a 40-day pause in fighting and the release of potentially thousands of Palestinian prisoners as well as Israeli hostages, he told a WEF audience.

“I hope Hamas do take this deal and frankly, all the pressure in the world and all the eyes in the world should be on them today saying ‘take that deal,'” Cameron said.

Cameron is among several foreign ministers in Riyadh, including from the US, France, Jordan and Egypt, as part of a diplomatic push to bring an end to the Gaza war.

A source briefed on the talks said Israel’s proposal entailed a deal to accept the release of 40 of the roughly 130 hostages believed to be still held in exchange for freeing Palestinian security prisoners jailed in Israel, and a second phase of a truce consisting of a “period of sustained calm” – Israel’s compromise response to a Hamas demand for permanent ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a Joint Ministerial Meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council-US Strategic Partnership discussing the humanitarian situation in Gaza, at the Gulf Cooperation Council Secretariat in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)

Later, three Israeli officials confirmed to The New York Times that Israel had dropped its demand that Hamas free 40 hostages immediately as part of a truce agreement and would accept the release of 33 captives.

One of the officials says the shift was due to assessments that some of the 40 hostages whose release Israel was demanding have died in Hamas captivity.

The numbers relate to hostages in a so-called “humanitarian” designation — women, children, men over 50, and those who are sick.

Even as Israel awaited Hamas’s response to the latest proposal, Hebrew media reported on Monday evening that a delegation was expected to travel to Cairo on Tuesday for further talks.

“We’re still waiting for [Yahya] Sinwar’s answer,” an unnamed Israeli official was quoted saying by the Walla news site, referring to the Hamas leader in Gaza. Meanwhile, Channel 12 said the Israeli team will be a “working delegation,” and that Mossad chief David Barnea and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar will join within days if the truce effort is advancing.

Sources also told Channel 12 that Israel has made “dramatic” concessions in its offer to Hamas, and that a deal could quickly be reached if the terror organization drops its demands for an end to the war and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

To date, Hamas has publicly insisted on an end to the war as a condition for the release of any further hostages, and despite denials, the TV report said Israel had  “indicated” to the Egyptians that, in the second phase of a deal, it would be prepared to discuss “long-term calm” in Gaza in exchange for the return of all hostages.

Channel 12 also reported that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi believe that the much-anticipated Israeli ground operation against Hamas in Rafah can and should wait until after a hostage deal.

Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, the first stop in the latest of a series of trips to the Middle East since the war erupted between Israel and Hamas in October following Hamas’s massive and deadly assault on southern Israel.

Blinken reiterated that the US could not support an Israeli ground operation on Rafah — where Israel says four intact Hamas battalions are holed up — “in the absence of an [Israeli] plan to ensure that civilians will not be harmed.”

Israel says it has prepared such plans.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah on April 29, 2024. (AP/Mohammad Jahjouh)

He said the US and Saudi Arabia had done “intense work together” over the past few months towards a normalization accord between the kingdom and Israel, a deal that includes Washington giving Riyadh agreements on bilateral defense and security commitments, as well as nuclear cooperation.

Diplomats say the eruption of the Gaza war derailed progress towards Israeli-Saudi normalization.

The US and Saudi components of the agreement are “potentially very close to completion,” Blinken said. “To move forward with normalization, two things will be required: calm in Gaza and a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.”

In return for normalization, Arab states were also pushing for Israel to accept a pathway to Palestinian statehood that centers on the West Bank, land Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. So far, the Palestinian statehood issue has been repeatedly rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken, speaking earlier at the opening of a meeting with Gulf Arab states, said the most effective way to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and create space for a more lasting solution was to get a ceasefire that allowed the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah, also said on Monday that an accord between Washington and Riyadh over normalization was “very, very close” (though notably this does not yet include Israel).

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacres, 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 Israel Defense Forces 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.

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