Blinken says Hamas signal of support for UN-backed Gaza truce deal is 'hopeful sign'


By Daphne Psaledakis and Nidal al-Mughrabi

TEL AVIV/CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday a Hamas statement of support for a U.N. resolution backing a proposal for a ceasefire in the Gaza war was a “hopeful sign” though word from the militant group’s leadership in the enclave was vital.

Conversations on plans for Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war ends will continue on Tuesday afternoon and in the next couple of days, Blinken said in Jerusalem after talks with Israeli leaders. “It’s imperative that we have these plans.”

Blinken met Israeli officials on Tuesday in a concerted push to end the eight-month-old war a day after President Joe Biden’s proposal for a ceasefire was approved by the U.N. Security Council.

Ahead of Blinken’s trip, Israel and Hamas both repeated hardline positions that have undermined previous mediation to end the fighting, while Israel has pressed on with assaults in central and southern Gaza, among the bloodiest of the war.

On Tuesday, however, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri, who is based outside Gaza, said it accepted the ceasefire resolution and was ready to negotiate over the details, adding that it was up to Washington to ensure that Israel abides by it.

He said Hamas accepted the formula stipulating the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and a swap of hostages held in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel.

“The U.S. 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 U.N. Security Council resolution,” Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

Blinken said the Hamas statement was “a hopeful sign” but definitive word was still needed from the Hamas leadership in Gaza. “That’s what counts, and that’s what we don’t have yet.”

Israel has said it will agree only to temporary pauses in the war until Hamas is defeated, while Hamas has countered it will not accept a deal that does not guarantee the war will end.

Blinken, speaking to reporters, also said his talks were also addressing day-after plans for Gaza, including security, governance, and rebuilding the shattered enclave.

“We’ve been doing that in consultation with many partners throughout the region. Those conversations will continue…it’s imperative that we have these plans,” he said.

FEARS OF MAJOR ISRAEL-HEZBOLLAH WAR

In his visit, his eighth to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war erupted last October, Blinken also hoped to counter rising violence between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah after both signalled readiness for a major spillover conflict.

Blinken met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, popular centrist ex-military chief Benny Gantz, who quit the hard right-dominated government on Sunday over what he said was its failure to outline a plan for the war’s end, and opposition leader Yair Lapid.

The U.S. State Department said Blinken discussed Biden’s truce proposal with Gantz and reiterated that it would advance Israel’s security interests, bring hostages home and raise the chances of restoring calm along Israel’s border with Lebanon.

Biden’s proposal envisions a ceasefire and release of hostages in exchange for Palestinians jailed in Israel in stages, ultimately leading to a permanent end to the war.

The U.S. is Israel’s closest ally and biggest arms supplier, though it has become increasingly critical of the high civilian death toll, vast destruction and humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s Gaza war and pressed harder for an end to it.

The war raged on in Gaza on Tuesday as Israeli forces stepped up strikes on its southern city of Rafah a day after four soldiers were killed in an ambush claimed by Hamas.

Israeli Army Radio said the soldiers died in an explosion in a building in Rafah’s Shaboura neighbourhood. Hamas said it had ambushed troops by detonating explosives previously planted in the building.

PROTRACTED QUEST TO CLINCH CEASEFIRE

The Israel-Gaza war began when Hamas-led Palestinian Islamist militants stormed into southern Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 as hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s retaliatory air and ground blitz on the densely populated Gaza Strip has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, the Gaza health ministry has said, and reduced most of the tiny besieged enclave to wasteland, with malnutrition widespread.

Biden has repeatedly declared that ceasefires were close over the past several months, but there has been only one, week-long truce, in November, when over 100 hostages were freed in exchange for about 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Israeli forces rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a commando raid into a crowded urban refugee camp in central Gaza on Saturday during which 274 Palestinians were killed by Israeli bombardments, according to Gaza’s health authorities.

There are over 100 hostages left in the coastal enclave, according to Israeli tallies, including at least 40 whom Israeli authorities have declared dead in absentia.

Protesters on Tuesday gathered outside the hotel where Blinken was staying in Tel Aviv, calling for an immediate deal to bring the hostages home.

“We trust you, Blinken, seal the deal,” they chanted as he held meetings at the hotel. “No matter how, hostage deal now.”

Blinken is set to travel on to Jordan for a conference on the humanitarian response for Gaza later on Tuesday. On Monday, he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo before proceeding to Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

Blinken emphasised to Netanyahu the importance of a post-war plan for Gaza and the need to prevent the conflict from spreading, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Tel Aviv and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo; writing by Mark Heinrich; editing by Angus MacSwan)



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