US, Jordan throw their weight behind Gaza ceasefire effort ahead of new talks
By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Emily Rose and Trevor Hunnicutt
DOHA/JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah kept up pressure for a Gaza Strip ceasefire as senior mediators were to resume work on Tuesday on an Israel-Hamas truce agreement, with the threat of an Israeli ground offensive looming in Rafah.
Senior officials from the U.S., Egypt, Israel and Qatar were expected to meet in Cairo to work on a three-phase framework that would see the release of hostages and achieve an extended pause, sources familiar with the matter said.
“The United States is working on a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas which would bring an immediate and sustained period of calm into Gaza for at least six weeks,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday after talks with Abdullah.
Saying he was working on the issue “day and night,” Biden said a six-week break in hostilities would provide a foundation “to build something more enduring.”
For his part, Abdullah underscored the urgency of the plight of Palestinians, especially more than one million civilians seeking refuge in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
“We cannot stand by and let this continue,” he said. “We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end.”
Israel launched a rescue mission on Monday that freed two Israeli-Argentine hostages held by Palestinian militants of Hamas in Rafah, by the Egyptian border. The two men were among 250 people seized during the Oct. 7 raid on Israel by Hamas that triggered Israel’s war on Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority’s official television station, Palestine TV, said 74 people were killed during the Israeli military operation. There was no immediate confirmation from the Gaza health ministry, which is run by Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the successful mission showed that military pressure should continue in Gaza, and he brushed aside international alarm at plans for a ground assault on Rafah, where Israel says Hamas forces remain.
US FRUSTRATION WITH ISRAEL
Biden has shown increasing exasperation with Netanyahu for not heeding his advice to do more to minimize casualties and protect civilians in Gaza.
After more than four months of war, much of the densely populated enclave is in ruins, with 28,340 Palestinians dead and 67,984 wounded, according to Gaza health officials. Many others are believed to be buried under rubble.
Biden has demanded that Israel not undertake a ground offensive in Rafah without a plan to protect Palestinian civilians who are massed there, many in flimsy tents after relocating multiple times to escape conflict in other parts of Gaza.
Netanyahu last week ordered the military to create a plan to evacuate civilians to protect them during a ground offensive. Asked about evacuation plans for civilians, an Israeli military spokesperson on Monday said he still didn’t know how it would be done.
The United Nations on Monday intensified calls for a ceasefire and opposed the idea of moving civilians in Rafah. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters, “We will not be party to forced displacement of people. As it is, there is no place that is currently safe in Gaza.”
“You can’t send people back to areas littered with unexploded ordnance, not to mention a lack of shelter,” he said.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday suggested that the way to reduce civilian casualties would to be stop arms supplies to Israel.
The U.S. is Israel’s most important foreign arms provider, giving $3.8 billion in military aid annually. The U.S. State Department said cutting aid would not be “more impactful than the steps Washington has already taken”.
Netanyahu last week rejected Hamas’ latest offer for a 4-1/2 month ceasefire, during which all hostages would go free, Israel would withdraw its troops from Gaza and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war.
The Hamas offer was a response to an earlier proposal drawn up by U.S. and Israeli spy chiefs and delivered to Hamas by Qatari and Egyptian mediators.
Asked about the ceasefire talks, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said on Monday, “Hamas has shown great flexibility in the talks to end the aggression and swap the captives, but the occupation is still stalling and disrespecting the efforts that are being done.”
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Doha, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Emily Rose in Jerusalem, and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)