Blinken reportedly to arrive Tuesday

Egypt’s spy chief in Israel for talks on hostage deal amid concerns over Rafah op

Delegation led by Abbas Kamel to discuss ‘new vision’ for extended ceasefire in Gaza, including exchange of hostages, Palestinian prisoners, return of residents to northern Gaza

A person sitting in an electric wheelchair moves past posters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza by Hamas, in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A person sitting in an electric wheelchair moves past posters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza by Hamas, in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Egypt sent a high-level delegation to Israel on Friday with the hope of brokering a ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza, two officials told The Associated Press. At the same time, it warned that a possible Israeli offensive focused on Gaza’s city of Rafah on the border with Egypt could have catastrophic consequences for regional stability.

Egypt’s top intelligence official, Abbas Kamel, is leading the delegation, and plans to discuss with Israel a “new vision” for a prolonged ceasefire in Gaza, an Egyptian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the mission freely.

As the war drags on and casualties mount, there has been growing international pressure for Hamas and Israel to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

Friday’s talks will focus at first on a limited exchange of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners, and the return of a significant number of displaced Palestinians to their homes in northern Gaza “with minimum restrictions,” the Egyptian official said. In the past, Israel had indicated resistance to the unrestricted return of Palestinians to areas the Israel Defense Forces has cleared in northern Gaza, due to fears that it would lead to a resurgence of Hamas.

The hope is that negotiations will then continue, with the goal of a larger deal to end the war, he said.

The official said mediators are working on a compromise that will answer most of both parties’ main demands.

Smoke rises to the sky after an explosion in the Gaza Strip as seen from southern Israel, April 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The Kan public broadcaster reported Friday that United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken will come to Israel on Tuesday to discuss the looming military operation in Rafah, along with efforts to secure a deal to pause the fighting and free the hostages.

Several Hebrew media sites reported Thursday evening that Israel was willing to accept the release of just 20 hostages in the first phase of the truce deal, so long as those released are either women and men over 50 years old and those who are seriously ill. The last proposal envisioned the release of 40 hostages in those categories, but Hamas claimed that it does not hold that many hostages in those categories who are still alive.

Shortly after those reports, the same news outlets carried statements from an unnamed senior Israeli official who denied that the number being entertained was 20, insisting that it was actually 33, which represents the updated Israeli figure for the number of female, elderly and sick hostages whom it still believes are alive in Gaza. Hamas has insisted that the number is closer to 20.

Hamas has said it will not back down from its demands for a permanent ceasefire and full withdrawal of Israeli troops, both of which Israel has rejected. Israel says it will continue military operations until Hamas is defeated and the hostages are released, and that it will retain a security presence in Gaza afterward.

Ahead of the talks, senior Hamas official Basem Naim told The Associated Press “there is nothing new from our side,” when asked about the negotiations.

The reports of Israel easing its demands came as speculation picked up that the IDF was nearing the start of its long-pledged operation to dismantle the remaining Hamas strongholds in Rafah. It has said it will evacuate the over one million Palestinians sheltering there first, which it has not begun to do, though an increase in IDF activity was identified on the southern border with Gaza, leading to intensified speculation that an evacuation of Rafah could be near, despite US opposition to the offensive.

Preparations for a Rafah operation may also be aimed at leaning on Hamas to accept a deal. The terror group published a video of one of the hostages it is holding on Wednesday for the first time in nearly two months, a potential sign that it, too, is looking to reach an agreement. The clip featured American-Israeli hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who has become one of the most well-known abductees due to the activism of his parents on behalf of his release.

A Hamas official told AFP that any push into Rafah, where much of Gaza’s population is sheltering, would threaten the negotiations.

Rafah also abuts the Gaza-Egypt border. While in Israel, Kamel, who heads Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, plans to make clear that Egypt “will not tolerate” Israel’s deployments of troops along that border, the Egyptian official said.

Trucks, carrying humanitarian supplies for the Gaza Strip, wait in line on the Egyptian side, at the Kerem Shalom Crossing border as seen from southern Israel, April 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The official said Egypt shared intelligence with the US and European countries showing that a Rafah offensive will inflame the entire region.

A Western diplomat in Cairo also said that Egypt has intensified its efforts in recent days to reach a compromise and establish a short ceasefire in Gaza that will help negotiate a longer truce and avert a Rafah offensive.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the developments.

On Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh el-Sissi cautioned that an Israeli attack on Rafah would have “catastrophic consequences on the humanitarian situation in the strip, as well as the regional peace and security.”

Sissi’s comments came in a phone call with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of The Netherlands, the Egyptian leader’s office said.

Egypt has also said an attack on Rafah would violate the decades-old peace deal between Egypt and Israel.

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 12 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 34 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas has also been holding two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively, as well as the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.

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