February 26th, 2024

Blinken to brief Israeli leaders on cease-fire and hostage talks as war in Gaza enters 5th month

By Matthew Lee, Wafaa Shurafa And Samy Magdy, The Associated Press on February 7, 2024.

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to meet Israeli leaders on Wednesday as Hamas suggested it was open to a new ceasefire and hostage release deal, but both sides remain dug in on thus far elusive goals as the war enters its fifth month.

The deadliest round of fighting in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has killed over 27,000 Palestinians, leveled entire neighborhoods, driven the vast majority of Gaza’s population from their homes, and pushed a quarter of the population to starvation.

Iran-backed militant groups across the region have conducted attacks, mostly on U.S. and Israeli targets, in solidarity with the Palestinians, drawing reprisals as the risk of a wider conflict grows.

Israel remains deeply shaken by Hamas’ Oct 7 attack, in which militants burst through the country’s vaunted defenses and rampaged across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting some 250, around half of whom remain in captivity in Gaza.

The United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt have proposed a cease-fire of several weeks in return for a phased release of the hostages. Hamas responded to the offer late Tuesday in what it said was a “positive spirit” while reiterating its core demands for an end to the Israeli offensive and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, which President Joe Biden said were “a little over the top.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war will continue until “total victory” over Hamas and the return of all the remaining hostages.

Blinken, who is on his fifth visit to the region since the war broke out, is trying to advance the cease-fire talks while pushing for a larger postwar settlement in which Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel in return for a “clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

But the increasingly unpopular Netanyahu is opposed to Palestinian statehood, and his hawkish governing coalition could collapse if he is seen as making too many concessions.

Blinken acknowledged “there’s still a lot of work to be done.” But he said he still believed an agreement on the hostages was possible. At a press conference in Qatar on Tuesday, he said a pathway to more lasting peace was “coming ever more sharply into focus” but would require “hard decisions” by the region’s leaders.

MISERY DEEPENS IN DEVASTATED GAZA

There is little talk of grand diplomatic bargains in Gaza, where Palestinians yearn for an end to fighting that has upended every aspect of their lives.

“We pray to God that it stops,” said Ghazi Abu Issa, who fled his home and sought shelter in the central town of Deir al-Balah. “There is no water, electricity, food or bathrooms.” Those living in tents have been drenched by winter rains and flooding. “We have been humiliated,” he said.

The Palestinian death toll from four months of war has reached 27,585, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count but says most of the dead have been women and children.

Hamas has continued to put up stiff resistance across the territory, and its police force has returned to the streets in places where Israeli troops have pulled back. Hamas is still holding over 130 hostages, but around 30 of them are believed to be dead, with the vast majority killed on Oct. 7.

Israel has ordered Palestinians to evacuate areas that make up two-thirds of the tiny coastal territory. That covers the prewar homes of three-quarters of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, according to the U.N. humanitarian office. Most of the displaced are packed into the southern town of Rafah near the border with Egypt, where many are living in squalid tent camps and overflowing U.N.-run shelters.

ISRAELIS AGONIZE OVER FATE OF HOSTAGES

In Israel, the focus is on the plight of the hostages, with family members and the wider public demanding a deal with Hamas, fearful that time is running out. Israeli forces have only rescued one hostage, while Hamas says several were killed in Israeli airstrikes and failed rescue missions.

More than 100 hostages, mostly women and children, were freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Thousands have taken part in weekly protests calling for the release of the hostages and demanding new elections. But Netanyahu is beholden to far-right coalition allies who have threatened to bring down the government if he concedes too much in the negotiations.

That could spell the end of Netanyahu’s long political career and expose him to prosecution over long-standing corruption allegations.

But the longer the war continues, the greater risk it spills over into other countries, drawing the U.S. and its allies even deeper into a volatile region.

Israel and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militant group have been locked in a low-intensity conflict along the border since the start of the war in Gaza, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank has seen a surge in violence as Israel has launched nightly arrest raids.

Iran-backed groups in Syria and Iraq have launched dozens of attacks against bases housing U.S. troops and killed three American soldiers last week, drawing a wave of retaliatory airstrikes. The U.S. and Britain have also carried out strikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in response to their attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea and disruption of global trade.

The Houthis, who portray their attacks as a blockade of Israel but have targeted ships with no known connection to the country, attacked two more ships early Tuesday.

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Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip and Magdy from Cairo.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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