Hamas expected to respond Monday to latest Israeli proposal

Gantz, far-right ministers issue dueling ultimatums to PM over hostage deal, Rafah op

War cabinet minister says ‘government will have no right to continue to exist’ if far-right leaders block an agreement to retrieve hostages that also doesn’t end war against Hamas

This image composed of photos from Flash90 shows from left to right: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. (Flash90)
This image composed of photos from Flash90 shows from left to right: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. (Flash90)

Ministers issued dueling threats on Sunday to leave the government as Israel negotiated a deal for the return of hostages held by Hamas and made preparations for a ground offensive in Rafah, further ratcheting up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he attempts to navigate the increasing domestic and international pressures over the war in Gaza.

War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, whose National Unity party joined the government days after the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught that triggered the ongoing fighting, said that although an IDF operation in Rafah “is important in the long struggle against Hamas, the return of our hostages — who were abandoned by the government on October 7 — is urgent and of far greater importance.”

“If a responsible outline is reached for the return of the hostages with the backing of the entire security establishment — which does not involve ending the war — and the ministers who led the government on October 7 prevent it, the government will have no right to continue to exist and lead the campaign,” Gantz said in a statement.

Gantz’s declaration came after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich warned the government would have “no right to exist” unless Israel invades Rafah. In a video posted to social media, Smotrich also rejected an Egyptian-mediated hostages-for-ceasefire proposal as a “humiliating surrender to the Nazis on the backs of hundreds of IDF soldiers” who died there.

“If you decide to fly a white flag and cancel the order to conquer Rafah immediately to complete the mission of destroying Hamas and restore peace for the residents of southern Israel and all of the country’s citizens, and return our abducted brothers and sisters who are held hostage to their homes – then the government you head will have no right of existence,” said Smotrich.

His rejection of the proposal was echoed by fellow hard-right Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who tweeted that a “reckless deal equals the dissolution of the government.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

The ultimatums from Smotrich and Ben Gvir were denounced by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who has vowed to provide the government with the votes needed to approve a hostage deal if the two take their parties out of Netanyhu’s coalition and oppose it.

“The government needs to choose: Return the hostages alive, or Ben Gvir and Smotrich. Relations with the Americans, or Ben Gvir and Smotrich. An agreement with the Saudis, or Ben Gvir and Smotrich. The security of Israel, or Ben Gvir and Smotrich,” Lapid wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Following the political threats, an Israeli official insisted that “preparations for Rafah are continuing.”

“In any deal, if there is one, Israel will not give up on the goals of the war,” the official said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks to IDF soldiers at the Palmachim airbase, April 28, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)b

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, pledged that Israel will both eliminate Hamas and return the hostages the terror group abducted on October 7.

“In Gaza, we are obligated to eliminate Hamas and also to return the hostages. We are working on these two tasks and I am determined to accomplish both things. It will take as long as it takes, but we must do this task,” he said to soldiers of the Artillery Corps who operate the Hermes 450 drone, during a visit to the Palmachim Airbase.

Earlier, the military said IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi approved battle plans with the commanders of divisions and brigades at the Southern Command headquarters in Beersheba, ahead of the looming offensive in Rafah.

Hamas response to Israeli counterproposal expected Monday

Amid the comments from Israeli officials on Rafah, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Israel has agreed to listen to US concerns and thoughts before it carries out a military invasion in Gaza’s southernmost city.

Israel’s military is poised to evacuate Palestinian civilians from Rafah and target Hamas hold-outs there, a senior Israeli defense official had said on Wednesday, despite international warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Washington has said it could not support a Rafah operation without an appropriate and credible humanitarian plan.

“They’ve assured us that they won’t go into Rafah until we’ve had a chance to really share our perspectives and our concerns with them,” Kirby told ABC on Sunday.

White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing in the White House in Washington, April 4, 2024. (Olivier Douliery/AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit the region this week and Kirby said the US would continue pressing for a temporary ceasefire that Washington wants to last for at least six weeks.

“What we’re hoping is that after six weeks of a temporary ceasefire, we can maybe get something more enduring in place,” Kirby said, while also noting the number of aid trucks going into the north of Gaza was starting to increase following intense US pressure on Israel.

“The Israelis have started to meet the commitments that {US} President [Joe] Biden asked them to meet,” he said.

A senior Hamas official told AFP that the terror group would deliver its response to Israel’s latest counterproposal for a Gaza truce on Monday.

“A Hamas delegation headed by Khalil al-Hayya will arrive in Egypt tomorrow… and deliver the movement’s response” to the Israeli proposal during a meeting with Egyptian intelligence officials, the official who declined to be named said.

Khalil al-Hayya speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Istanbul, Turkey, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Mediator Egypt sent its own delegation to Israel on Friday to jump-start stalled negotiations. Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been unsuccessfully trying to broker a new Gaza truce deal ever since a one-week halt to the fighting in November.

Terms of a deal

Diplomatic efforts for a deal have been stepped up in recent days.

The terms of the current Israeli-backed proposal 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.

An Israeli official told Channel 12 news on Friday that Israel 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 also indicated a willingness to withdraw forces from a key corridor bisecting Gaza in two, Channel 12 said.

On Saturday, the same TV station reported, without citing a source and without elaborating, that an accompanying truce in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza would last one more day for each extra hostage released. It was not clear how this would relate to reports in recent weeks that the first phase of a deal would provide for a 42-day truce.

This 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. Responding to the TV 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.

Nonetheless, US news website Axios, citing two Israeli officials, reported Saturday that Israel’s latest proposal includes a willingness to discuss the “restoration of sustainable calm” in Gaza after hostages are released.

It was the first time in the nearly seven-month war that Israeli leaders have suggested they are open to discussing an end to the war, Axios said.

“Hamas is open to discussing the new proposal positively,” another Hamas source close to the negotiations told AFP.

The source added that the terror group was “keen to reach an agreement that guarantees a permanent ceasefire, the free return of displaced people, an acceptable deal for [a prisoner] exchange and ensuring an end to the [Gaza] siege.”

‘Biggest disaster in Palestinian history’

Also Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States was the only country capable of stopping an Israeli invasion of Rafah, which he believed was only days away and claimed would be “the biggest disaster in the history of the Palestinian people.”

“We appeal to the United States of America to ask Israel to stop the Rafah operation because America is the only country capable of preventing Israel from committing this crime,” Abbas said as a two-day World Economic Forum special meeting kicked off in Riyadh, with a focus on the war between Israel and Hamas.

Abbas also said that Israel has “the right to full security” and the Palestinians have a “right to self-determination and an independent state.”

The meeting in the Saudi capital was attended by the American, French, German, Emirati, Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian and Turkish foreign ministers.

Israel did not participate in the event.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends the World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh on April 28, 2024. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

At the start of the summit in Riyadh, attended by a host of Gaza mediators, Saudi Arabia called for regional “stability,” warning of the effects of the Israel-Hamas war on global economic sentiment.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said in a panel discussion that the war in Gaza, as well as the Ukraine conflict, puts “a lot of pressure” on the economic “mood.”

“I think cool-headed countries and leaders and people need to prevail,” Jadaan said. “The region needs stability.”

On Saturday, Saudi planning minister Faisal said that the world is “walking a tightrope right now, trying to balance security and prosperity.”

“We meet at a moment when one misjudgment or one miscalculation or one miscommunication will further exacerbate our challenges.”

WEF president Borge Brende said there was “some new momentum now in the talks around the hostages, and also for… a possible way out of the impasse we are faced with in Gaza.”

A Gaza-focused session on Monday was set to feature newly appointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and Sigrid Kaag, the United Nations aid coordinator for the Gaza Strip.

IDF soldiers operate in Gaza as the military says it remains on high alert ahead of Passover holiday, April 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were murdered in the October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, and 253 were taken hostage.

Israel estimates that 129 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 claims that more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the war, but the number cannot be independently verified as it 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.

From the outset, Saudi Arabia has worked with other regional and global powers to try to contain the war in Gaza and avoid the type of conflagration that could derail its ambitious economic reform agenda known as Vision 2030.

The kingdom also remains in talks about a landmark deal under which it would recognize Israel for the first time while strengthening its security partnership with the United States, though analysts say the war has made it more difficult.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud speaks to a panel during the World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh on April 28, 2024. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

Meanwhile, the conservative Gulf kingdom, home to the holiest shrines in Islam, is trying to open up to the world, luring business leaders and non-religious tourists.

Hosting international events such as the WEF meeting allows the kingdom to showcase social changes including the reintroduction of cinemas and the lifting of a ban on women driving.

“Eight years into Vision 2030, we have demonstrated our willingness to lead the way towards a model of transformative growth that is innovative, inclusive, and sustainable,” Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said on Saturday.

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