Blinken says Sinwar’s word ‘what counts’ after ‘hopeful’ Hamas response to UN vote

Israeli official insists hostage-ceasefire proposal allows IDF to keep fighting terror group, while Hamas figure says US must compel ‘the occupation to immediately end the war’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media as after meeting with families of Hamas hostages, during his visit to Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (Jack Guez/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media as after meeting with families of Hamas hostages, during his visit to Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (Jack Guez/Pool Photo via AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday cautiously welcomed additional statements from Hamas signaling openness to the latest Israeli ceasefire proposal, while clarifying that they did not amount to a definitive response from the terror group’s Gaza leadership, which has not yet been issued.

In a press conference during the Israeli leg of his latest wartime trip to the region, Blinken was asked about Hamas’s statement welcoming the US-led resolution passed by the UN Security Council on Monday, which called on the terror group to accept the Israeli offer.

“It is a hopeful sign, just as the statement that they issued after the president made his proposal ten days ago was hopeful,” Blinken responded before noting the Hamas response was not definitive.

But what really counts, Blinken said, is the response from Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, who is believed to be hiding in tunnels deep under Gaza, possibly surrounded by some of the remaining 116 Israeli hostages seized during the terror group’s October 7 onslaught that sparked the now eight-month-long war.

While Hamas has leaders based in Qatar who have been leading the negotiations, the one calling the shots is believed to be Sinwar, who has often been hard to reach, as he seeks to evade Israeli capture or killing.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal revealed a series of text messages from the terror chief in which he reportedly asserted that the high Palestinian death toll in Gaza has put pressure on Israel to end the fighting.

Hamas’s Gaza Strip leader Yahya Sinwar in a tunnel in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, October 10, 2023 (IDF Spokesman)

Meanwhile, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri, who is based outside Gaza, told Reuters on Tuesday that the terror group had accepted the ceasefire resolution and was ready to negotiate over the details. It was up to Washington to ensure that Israel abides by it, he added.

He said Hamas accepted the formula stipulating the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the exchange of hostages held by the terror group for Palestinian security prisoners jailed in Israel.

“The US administration is facing a real test to carry out its commitments in compelling the occupation to immediately end the war in an implementation of the UN Security Council resolution,” Abu Zuhri said.

The statements from Hamas after Monday’s Security Council vote appeared to be the latest effort by the terror group to avoid being cast as the rejectionist side in the negotiations, as the Biden administration has repeatedly charged.

In the last round of talks, Hamas announced that it had accepted a ceasefire proposal on the table, leading to immediate headlines from global media outlets and celebrations in Gaza. But what the terror group  actually did was submit a new proposal with terms deemed unacceptable at the time by the US and Israel.

Israel, too, has at times sought to avoid being seen as overly obstructionist. After coming out against Washington’s Security Council resolution over amendments made to the text last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement, attributed to an anonymous official, which welcomed the UN vote.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (C) votes during a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East at UN headquarters on June 10, 2024 in New York. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

The statement insisted that the Israeli proposal would allow Israel to dismantle Hamas’s military and governing capabilities — a prime declared Israeli goal of the war.

According to the Biden Administration, though, the Israeli proposal ended up being nearly identical to the previous one presented by Hamas last month, which Jerusalem and Washington had rejected out of hand.

The terror group has still dragged its feet in responding.

“Efforts are continuing to study and clarify some matters to ensure implementation by the Israeli side,” Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha said Tuesday. Israel “has not given clear approval or commitments to implementation that would lead to ending the aggression,” he said.

Speaking with reporters in Tel Aviv after meeting with Israeli offices, Blinken said “everyone’s vote is in, except for one vote, and that’s Hamas.”

“We await the answer from Hamas, and that will speak volumes about what they want, what they’re looking for, who they’re looking after. Are they looking after one guy who may be pronounced safe,” the top US diplomat continued, referring to Sinwar, “while the people that he purports to represent continue to suffer in a crossfire of his own making?”

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

“Or will he do what’s necessary to actually move this to a better place, to help end the suffering of people, to help bring real security to Israelis and Palestinians alike?” added Blinken.

Blinken claimed Tuesday that Netanyahu had reaffirmed his commitment to the proposal when they met late Monday, even though the premier has largely avoided doing this publicly.

The Israeli proposal hasn’t fully been released to the public and is being interpreted by some as allowing Hamas to remain in Gaza in some form, given that the offer envisions a phase one temporary ceasefire with the terror group that is later turned permanent in its second phase.

Channel 12 on Monday said it had obtained the Israeli proposal and that it includes a commitment to end the war in Gaza even before all hostages are released.

Contrary to what Netanyahu has insisted, the four-page document apparently does not include the elimination of Hamas as a governing force in Gaza, and does include an Israeli commitment to end the war even before all the hostages are released, Channel 12 reported. Netanyahu’s office branded the story “a total lie.”

The conflicting signals from Netanyahu regarding the proposed deal appear to reflect his political dilemma. His far-right coalition allies have rejected the Israeli proposal, though they say he has refused to show it to them, and have threatened to bring down his government if he ends the war without destroying Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on June 10, 2024. (Chuck Kennedy/US State Department/AFP)

But Netanyahu is also under mounting pressure to accept a deal to bring the hostages back. Thousands of Israelis, including families of the hostages, have demonstrated in favor of the US-backed plan. Polls have indicated that a majority of the public backs prioritizing freeing the hostage over other war aims.

The portions of the offer revealed by Biden in his May 31 speech envision a three-phased plan in which Hamas would release the rest of the hostages in exchange for a lasting ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The group is still holding around 120 hostages, a third of whom are believed to be dead.

The deal would begin with a six-week truce during which the remaining living female, elderly and sick hostages would be released.

In exchange, Israel will release hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners; withdraw the IDF from Gaza population centers; allow the unrestricted return of Palestinians to all areas of the Strip; and facilitate the daily entry of 600 trucks of humanitarian aid into the enclave.

The main point of contention in previous rounds has been Israel’s insistence on being able to resume the fighting after hostages are released and Hamas’s refusal to free those it abducted unless Israel commits up front to a permanent ceasefire.

In an attempt to bridge this divide, Clause 14 of the Israeli proposal states that during the first phase, the parties will launch talks on the terms of phase two — a permanent ceasefire — that they will aim to conclude by the end of the fifth week of the initial truce.

A Palestinian girl walks amidst the debris a day after an operation by the Israeli Special Forces to rescue four hostages held in the Nuseirat camp, in the central Gaza Strip on June 9, 2024. (Eyad Baba/AFP)

If the sides don’t succeed in reaching an agreement within that allotted time, the phase one ceasefire can be extended indefinitely, so long as the talks on the terms of phase two continue.

However, if Hamas is found to violate its commitments under the deal, Israel can resume fighting.

If agreements are reached in the phase one talks, a six-week phase two can commence, during which Hamas will release the remaining living Israeli hostages, including young men and male soldiers. In exchange, Israel will release an agreed-upon number of Palestinian security prisoners — likely an even higher number than those released in phase one, including some of the most notorious terror convicts — in addition to the IDF withdrawing completely from Gaza.

Significantly in phase 2, the sides, according to Clause 15, would “announce restoration of a sustainable calm (cessation of military hostilities permanently) and its commencement prior to the exchange of hostages and prisoners.”

During the six-week phase three, Hamas will release the remaining bodies of hostages it is still holding while Israel will allow the commencement of an internationally backed Gaza reconstruction plan.

Israelis protest for the release of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, outside the hotel of United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on June 11, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Blinken’s latest regional tour was primarily aimed at pushing the hostage deal proposal, which was at the top of the agenda during his Monday night meetings with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant along with his Tuesday meetings with Opposition chair Yair Lapid and National Unity leader Benny Gantz. Gantz left the emergency government last week, arguing that Netanyahu was botching the prosecution of the war by prioritizing his own political survival.

Blinken also met with the families of remaining American abductees as well as demonstrators for a hostage deal outside his Tel Aviv hotel on Tuesday. He then departed for Jordan to attend an international donor conference for the Palestinians.

The top US diplomat was also expected to visit Qatar, which along with Egypt has served as a key mediator with Hamas along with Egypt. Blinken was in Cairo earlier on Monday where he met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

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