Israel Says a Cease-Fire Plan Backed by Hamas Falls Short

(Bloomberg) -- The Palestinian militant group Hamas said it had agreed to a cease-fire proposal for the Gaza Strip, but Israel’s war cabinet unanimously rejected it as “far from Israel’s necessary demands,” dashing hopes for an immediate pause in the fighting.

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Israel vowed to continue “its operation in Rafah to exert military pressure on Hamas” but also said it will send a delegation to meet with mediators “to exhaust the possibility of reaching an agreement.” In a statement later Monday, the Israel Defense Forces announced fresh airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Rafah area.

The Israeli response followed hours after Hamas had posted a statement to Telegram saying that Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political office, had accepted a Qatari and Egyptian cease-fire proposal. Questions were raised almost immediately about the details, with both US and Israeli officials saying they were studying the Hamas response.

Benny Gantz, a centrist who joined the war cabinet, said in a post on Telegram that the proposal offered by Hamas “does not correspond to the dialogue that has taken place so far with the mediators and has significant gaps.” He said an Israeli delegation nonetheless will meet with negotiators in Cairo.

Hamas and Israel have been negotiating via Qatar, Egypt and the US on an agreement that would see the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza in exchange for Palestinians detained in Israeli jails. It would also include a pause in fighting.

The proposal and cease-fire that Hamas said it could accept has minor wording changes from the one that Israel and the US had presented to the group, the New York Times reported.

The proposal calls for the eventual enactment of a “sustainable calm,” the paper reported citing two officials familiar with the revised plan. The officials, who weren’t identified, said the changes were made by Arab mediators in consultation with US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns and the wording was something all sides had earlier said they could accept.

The officials also said they expected warring parties would likely clash over the definition of “sustainable calm,” the paper reported.

Israeli cabinet minister Itamar Ben Gvir was the first Israeli official to address the Hamas response to the cease-fire proposal, saying it was no more than a trick. “Hamas’ shenanigans have only one answer: an immediate order to occupy Rafah! Increasing military pressure, crushing Hamas, and proceeding to its ultimate defeat,” Ben Gvir said in a post on X.

Tensions Increased

Those talks had stalled over the weekend over the Iran-backed militant group’s insistence that any truce be permanent, leading to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israel has said it must eliminate Hamas before ending the war.

Tensions also increased after Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers with a rocket barrage on Sunday on the border crossing of Kerem Shalom, one of its worst missile attacks in weeks. Israel has insisted on a phased approach to any cease-fire, saying Hamas must first commit to the release of about three dozen hostages in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

“I want it to succeed, but the cold, sort of cool analyst in me says the fundamental divide between the two combatants — Israel and Hamas — make it more likely that we’ll see many more weeks, if not months, of violence than we’ll see some sort of off-ramp to a diplomatic settlement,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who previously worked at the US National Security Council.

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will go ahead with its invasion of Rafah, in Gaza’s south, where Israeli forces say Hamas still holds sway. Earlier Monday, Israel told some civilians to move out of parts of Rafah, a possible prelude to a long-expected attack on the city where more than a million Palestinians have sought shelter from the war.

The Israel Defense Forces “will act with extreme force against terrorist organizations in your areas of residence,” a spokesman said on X on Monday morning. He urged residents of eastern Rafah to go north to an “expanded humanitarian area” near Khan Younis, another city in Gaza.

Large numbers of people started leaving Rafah in cars, on foot and on horse-drawn carriages. A spokesman for the Israeli military said its Air Force struck 50 targets in Rafah Monday.

President Joe Biden has called a Rafah invasion a “red line,” and he and other top US officials have repeatedly warned that Israel must not launch such an attack without protecting civilians. During a visit to Tel Aviv last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “we’ve not seen such a plan.’

Biden and Netanyahu spoke on Monday. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden had again made clear the US view about “operations in Rafah that could potentially put more than a million innocent people at greater risk.”

Read More: Biden, Netanyahu Speak as Israel Tells Gazans to Leave Rafah

If a cease-fire had been reached, it would have brought about a halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas for the first time since a similar accord in late November. The impasse could allow talks to begin regarding a permanent truce, while letting much-needed aid be delivered to Gaza’s war-ravaged population. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

--With assistance from Courtney McBride, Jordan Fabian, Akayla Gardner, Iain Marlow, Jon Herskovitz and Bill Faries.

(Updates with New York Times report on deal from paragraph six. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said details on the cease-fire proposal had been provided.)

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