US envoy heads to region to push hostage deal, press Israel on Rafah offensive

Brett McGurk will visit Egypt, Israel ‘to see if we can’t get this hostage deal in place’; highly unlikely Rafah offensive will commence before Ramadan, US official tells ToI

Brett McGurk, US White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, speaks during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21, 2021. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)
Brett McGurk, US White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, speaks during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21, 2021. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

A senior US official will seek to advance a hostage deal and press for assurances from Israel on a Rafah offensive in a trip this week, the White House said Tuesday.

Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, will hold talks Wednesday in Egypt and Thursday in Israel, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The trip comes as Qatar and Egypt are mediating a proposal to free hostages seized during the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel in return for a pause in Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

McGurk will hold talks “to see if we can’t get this hostage deal in place,” Kirby told reporters.

Ahead of his visit, Channel 12 reported that there were also ongoing contacts to try and set up another four-way meeting between the US, Israel, Qatar and Egypt like the one that took place in Paris last month, where the contours of the deal were worked out.

That meeting was attended by CIA Director Bill Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

However, the report, which cited Israeli sources, said that there were serious doubts in Israel because Hamas was showing no signs of easing its demands, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected as “delusional” even as Hamas sent a delegation Tuesday to Egypt.

In addition to the hostage deal, McGurk will also focus on trying to dissuade Israel from pushing into Rafah.

Israel has rebuffed repeated calls to drop plans for an offensive in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city where some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering, many in makeshift tents. Israel says Rafah is Hamas’s last military stronghold and the terror group’s leaders and some of the hostages are likely there.

McGurk will reiterate US President Joe Biden’s concern about an operation in Rafah without protections for civilians, Kirby said.

Palestinian crowds struggle to buy bread from a bakery in Rafah, Gaza, on February 18, 2024. (AP Photo/ Fatima Shbair)

“Under the current circumstances, without properly accounting for the safety and security of those refugees, we continue to believe that an operation in Rafah would be a disaster,” he said.

A senior US official separately told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that it is highly unlikely that Israel will launch its major planned military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

The IDF is still finishing up major operations in Khan Younis, north of Rafah, and has not finalized its plan to ensure that the million-plus Palestinians currently sheltering in the latter city will be protected once the Israeli operation against Hamas’s remaining battalions there begins, the US official said.

Any plan requiring the evacuation of that many Palestinian civilians and the establishment of new humanitarian mechanisms to support them will take weeks to implement, the US official speculated.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz appeared to confirm that timeline earlier this week, saying that Israel will operate in Rafah if the hostages aren’t returned by Ramadan.

Biden has stressed that a plan ensuring the safety of civilians is necessary before Israel launches any major offensive in Rafah and indicated Friday that the operation should not commence while hostage negotiations are ongoing.

Kites are flown over Rafah as smoke billows following Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 20, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the IDF plans to evacuate the civilians in Rafah to an area between Khan Younis and Wadi Gaza, which bisects the Strip.

The US official indicated that failure to start the Rafah operation before Ramadan may force Israel to wait until after the holy month is over to begin the offensive.

The Biden administration is working to secure a hostage deal before Ramadan begins, a second US official told The Times of Israel earlier this month, adding that Washington wants to use the humanitarian pause secured by the hostage deal to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire.

Kirby cited McGurk’s travel as he defended the latest US veto of a UN Security Council resolution that would have called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza — a stance rejected by Israel.

Families of Israelis held in Hamas captivity protest calling for the government to find a solution to have the hostages released, outside IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I think most of the people around the world would love to see those hostages home with their families. And if we just voted, went along, with this resolution, the chances of doing that would be greatly reduced,” Kirby said.

The war started when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on October 7 killing some 1,200  people in Israel, mostly civilians in their homes and at a music festival.

Hamas terrorists also took about 253 hostages — 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel launched a ground offensive aimed at rescuing the hostages and destroying Hamas.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that more than 29,000 people have been killed. The figures provided by the health ministry cannot be independently verified and include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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