US pushes Hamas to accept ceasefire before Israel invades Rafah

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Newly renewed talks could be the last chance for a cease-fire and hostage release before war erupts with Israel's threatened offensive on Gaza's southern city of Rafah, U.S. and Arab leaders say.

Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken met Arab leaders in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Monday, making an urgent call for a deal between Israel and Hamas to halt the assault on Rafah, where more than 1 million people have taken refuge.

Blinken's visit came after President Joe Biden reiterated US opposition to a Rafah operation in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

U.S. officials do not believe Israel is ready to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah, a ceasefire and a key window to free hostages still held by Hamas, two people familiar with the U.S. position told NBC News. .

The diplomatic push has prompted protests against Israel's actions to hit college campuses across the US, and Israel fears its leaders could soon face arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UC Berkeley campus last week. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Speaking in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, Blinken said the ceasefire proposal to Hamas by mediators from Qatar and Egypt was “extraordinarily generous”. He added that Hamas “must make a quick decision” about the offer, adding that he “hopes they will make the right decision.”

An Israeli official and an Arab diplomat familiar with the negotiations told NBC News that a deal is on the table. The first phase will see the release of 33 hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

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The released prisoners will be women, children, the elderly and those with serious medical conditions, the official said, adding that previous talks had focused on a deal for 40 hostages, but not 40 live hostages, Hamas has indicated. Who fits that criteria?

Israeli officials have previously said 133 hostages remain in Gaza, although 34 people are believed to be dead.

In a significant softening of Israel's position, senior administration officials and Arab diplomats indicated for the first time that Israel would accept a cease-fire lasting more than six weeks, as proposed by the United States.

Two other senior officials and an Arab diplomat said everything hinged on Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, who is widely believed to be underground in the terrorist organization's tunnel network.

A Hamas political leader tells NBC News “The new plan is a positive development, but it's too early to be optimistic.”

The Hamas leader said that because of the group's long experience with the Israeli government, they “couldn't be sure until the last moment.”

The chairman added that “certain issues require careful negotiations and clear confirmation”.

Negotiations have been deadlocked for weeks, but U.S. officials say Hamas released two videos showing evidence of the lives of three captives, which may indicate the militant group's interest in striking a deal.

“If the hostages are not released soon, there is no way to stop the Israelis in Rafah,” an Arab diplomat involved in the talks told NBC News on Monday. “An attack on Rafah will give Shinwar the support he needs to destroy Israel.”

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Relatives and supporters of hostages in Gaza protested in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem last month.Menahem Gahana / AFP – Getty Images File

U.S. officials believe Netanyahu, who is under increasing pressure at home to protect his freedom, will find it difficult to resume major military operations in Gaza if a cease-fire comes into effect and a deal is reached to free the remaining hostages. two sources said.

There have been widespread protests in Israel calling for Netanyahu and his government to do more to free the remaining hostages.

But the Israeli government has been split on the plan in recent days.

Right-wing members of Netanyahu's cabinet have voiced their opposition, calling for Israel to focus on attacking Rafa and threatening to quit the government if a deal is reached. More moderate members, including War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, have said a hostage deal is more urgent than an attack on Rafah.

Netanyahu has repeatedly signaled his intention to launch a full-scale ground invasion of the city, where he says Hamas militants are holed up.

Blinken – on his seventh trip to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war began in October – told Arab officials on Monday that the best way to ease the humanitarian disaster in Gaza was to conclude a ceasefire agreement to free hostages.

“The most effective way to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, alleviate the suffering of children, women and men, and create space for a just and lasting settlement is a ceasefire and the release of the hostages,” he said. At the Gulf Cooperation Council of Foreign Ministers in Riyadh.

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U.S. officials said the main goal of Blinken's trip was to move toward an extension of the hostage agreement and the temporary cease-fire.

Blinken will meet Egyptian and Qatari officials at the forum, they added. Both countries have been pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza, with Egypt's top delegation visiting Israel last week to discuss a longer ceasefire.

Blinken will then travel to Jordan and Israel.

U.S. officials said the U.S. is continuing to pursue a broader deal that includes normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a path toward an independent Palestinian state and a plan to rebuild Gaza.

A Palestinian mourns relatives killed in an Israeli bombardment at Al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, Gaza on Monday.AFP – Getty Images

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, who attended the forum, said on Monday that “the most important thing now is to avoid an attack on Rafah” because it would be “catastrophic”.

Rafah is a key entry point for urgently needed aid from Egypt, which is particularly concerned about the war spreading across its borders. Madbouly added that progress had been made but there were still “fundamental issues” on both sides that needed to be resolved. “There has to be compromise on both sides,” he said.

Saudi Arabia's finance minister, Mohammed al-Zadan, also told the forum that “cool countries, leaders and people must prevail”. He also said the region needed “stability”.

Meanwhile, Israel's military continued its aerial bombardment of Rafah over the weekend. At least 22 people were killed, including six women and five children, Palestinian health officials said.

Andrea Mitchell and Keir Simmons reported from Riyadh and Raf Sanchez from Tel Aviv.

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