Hamas rethinking strategy, says talks are back to square one

US: Ongoing IDF op in Rafah doesn’t amount to major offensive we’ve warned against

White House says it’s watching ‘with concern,’ urges Israel to reopen Rafah Crossing for humanitarian aid; calls collapse of hostage talks ‘deeply regrettable’ but efforts continue

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

IDF soldiers standing atop a battle tank as part of the Givati Brigade operating in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout picture released on May 10, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces/AFP)
IDF soldiers standing atop a battle tank as part of the Givati Brigade operating in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout picture released on May 10, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces/AFP)

The White House said Friday that the US does not believe the IDF’s operation in Rafah over past the day amounts to a wide-scale military operation, which President Joe Biden warned would lead him to halt offensive weapons shipments to Israel.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what we’ve seen here in the last 24 hours connotes or indicates a broad, large-scale invasion or major ground operation. It appears to be localized near the crossing largely with the forces that they had put in there at the beginning,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

At the beginning of the week, Israel launched an operation to take over the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing, which it said was being used for terror purposes. The crossing has since been shuttered, with Israel offering no timetable for when the crossing will be reopened for the delivery of aid.

On Thursday night the security cabinet voted to approve a measured expansion of the operation.

Israel has ordered some 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from eastern neighborhoods of Rafah, as it has carried out repeated airstrikes and engaged in close-quarters combat with terrorists in the area.

“We’re watching this with concern,” Kirby said during a briefing with reporters. “Every day that crossing is not available and usable for humanitarian assistance, there’s going to be more suffering, and that’s a deep concern to us. We urge the Israelis to open up that crossing to humanitarian assistance immediately. That aid is desperately needed, and we urge them… to be as careful, precise, and discriminate as they can.”

The US has offered tepid support for the limited operation to remove Hamas from the Rafah Crossing area, but warned that its stance could shift if the offensive widened to civilian areas or if the delivery of humanitarian aid was hampered for a sustained period, with Biden saying Wednesday that he could halt arms transfers to Israel if it launches a wide-scale invasion. That came after the White House confirmed a delay in the transfer of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs over concerns that the IDF could use them in Rafah, as it has in other parts of Gaza.

IDF troops and tanks on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to a Lebanese report, Israel is planning on breaking its offensive into smaller, separate operations in different areas in Rafah so as not to draw the ire of the United States and the international community.

Touching on efforts to reach a hostage and truce deal, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called the departure of Israeli and Hamas negotiating teams from talks in Cairo “deeply regrettable,” after the latest round of meetings again failed to yield an agreement.

“We’ve seen the comments that officials from both sides have made speaking to the impasse that they’re at right now,” Kirby told reporters in a briefing.

“But we are working hard to try to keep both sides engaged in continuing the discussion — if only virtually — and to continue to work on the actual text itself. We still believe that a deal was possible… The gaps remaining can be surmounted, but it’s going to require leadership, some moral courage and it’s going to require continued ability to compromise and to negotiate in good faith. We’re not giving up on that,” Kirby added.

“There are no in-person meetings now in place… That doesn’t mean the process has to end… We’re still all in, and we’re still going to keep working on it,” he said.

On Monday, Hamas claimed to have accepted a truce agreement with Israel, though it later emerged that the proposal it said had come from Egyptian and Qatari mediators included several elements fundamentally different from what Israel had agreed to. Jerusalem swiftly rejected the proposal for falling short of its “vital demands,” but okayed dispatching a working-level delegation to the indirect talks in Cairo.

Hamas said Friday it is holding consultations to reconsider its negotiating strategy in light of Israel’s rejection of its counter-proposal in the talks, and the expanding IDF operations at the Rafah Border Crossing.

The terror group claimed in a statement that Israel’s response to the hostage talks brought them back to square one — a similar charge that Israeli officials made in response to Hamas’s response to the hostage proposal crafted by mediators and green-lit by Israel last week.

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

Hamas wants calmness and a real hostages-for-prisoners swap deal, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the war to continue, Hamas senior official Khalil al-Hayya claimed Friday.

“Hamas did not suspend nor withdraw from the [truce] negotiations; the occupation turned against the mediators’ proposal,” Al-Hayya added in comments to Al Araby TV published by Hamas.

The specifics of the proposal Hamas said it had accepted Monday (Arabic text here) differed in numerous regards from the reported terms of what the US had hailed as an “extremely generous” Israeli offer.

Among the differences: Israel had demanded the release of 33 living hostages in a first stage, but the Hamas proposal would allow the group to free remains in place of living hostages, with most only to be released after the truce was over a month old; the Hamas proposal removes the veto Israel demanded on the release of certain Palestinian security prisoners, and raises the number of Palestinian security prisoners to be freed; the Hamas proposal provides for the free movement of Gazans back to the north of the strip, without security checks as required by Israel to prevent Hamas gunmen returning.

The Hamas proposal also changes the timing of hostage releases within the phases, and some of the specifics on Israeli troop withdrawals. It also demands the release of all Palestinian security prisoners who were freed in the 2011 Shalit prisoner deal and have since been re-arrested.

Significantly, Hamas said on Monday night that it regards itself as having accepted terms for an end to the war, whereas both the Israeli-backed text and the Hamas response refer to restoring “sustainable calm.” In an introductory paragraph, however, the Hamas text says the “framework agreement aims for … a return to sustainable calm in a way that achieves a permanent ceasefire.”

Famiily members of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza protest outside the final rehearsal for the official 76th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, May 9, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel has consistently said it will not accept a deal that entails a permanent ceasefire, and that it will resume its military campaign after any truce-for-hostages deal in order to complete its two declared war goals: freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities.

According to CNN, Hamas created another major obstacle in the negotiations on Monday by demanding Israel agree upfront to an initial 12-week truce, rather than the six weeks in the original framework.

War broke out between Israel and Hamas following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel which saw terrorists kill some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnap 252.

It is believed that 128 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 36 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

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

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as 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.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 34,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified, does not distinguish between combatants and civilians and includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and seventy-one soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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