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Netanyahu rejects Hamas cease-fire proposal after meeting with Blinken

Palestinians from the Abu Irsan family inspect their residential building destroyed by a strike in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.  (Loay Ayyoub/For The Washington Post)
By John Hudson, Claire Parker, Susannah George and Lior Soroka Washington Post

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday forcefully rejected a cease-fire proposal by Hamas, vowing to fight until a “complete victory” had been achieved over the militant group in Gaza – a setback for Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in Israel hoping to build support for a humanitarian pause.

Hamas had called for a three-stage cease-fire deal that would release Israeli hostages, alive and dead, over a more than four-month period in exchange for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, according to the leaked text of its response to a truce proposal verified by the Washington Post.

Netanyahu called Hamas’ terms “delusional” in a news conference Wednesday evening: “By giving in to Hamas demands, we will only invite another massacre,” he said, adding that Israel would continue its military campaign in southern Gaza.

“Continued military pressure is essential for the hostages’ release,” he said.

U.S. officials expected Hamas and Israel to continue to posture publicly against the truce as a negotiating tactic, but an Israeli initiative to continue military operations for months on end would directly contradict Blinken’s goals of reducing hostilities and allowing humanitarian aid into the strip.

Under the broad framework for a deal, hashed out by negotiators from the United States, Qatar, Israel and Egypt in Paris last month, an initial pause in fighting would last for six weeks and bring about the release of all civilian hostages held by the militant group in Gaza. Israel would release three Palestinian prisoners for every hostage Hamas frees.

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Tuesday evening that Hamas had delivered a “positive” reply after a week of deliberation, and Qatar had passed it along to Israel. President Biden characterized it on Tuesday as “a little bit over the top.”

Between his meetings Wednesday with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken said U.S. officials were “intensely” looking at Hamas’ counterproposal.

“There’s a lot of work to be done but we are very much focused on doing that work, and hopefully being able to resume the release of hostages that was interrupted,” he said.

It was unclear Wednesday evening what Netanyahu’s pledge to move forward with Israel’s military campaign – including in Rafah, the last sliver of land its troops have not yet invaded – would mean for international diplomatic efforts to secure a cease-fire.

Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, said in a news conference in Beirut Wednesday that a Hamas delegation would head to Cairo Thursday for fresh talks convened by Egypt and Qatar.

He accused Netanyahu of misleading the Israeli public and seeking to prolong the war.

The text of the Hamas proposal was published by the Hezbollah-aligned al-Akhbar newspaper Wednesday and verified to the Post by several Hamas officials. It envisions three phases, each lasting 45 days, involving the release of Israeli hostages and the remains of those who were killed.

In the first phase, both sides would pause fighting, and Hamas and other Gaza militant groups would free Israeli nonmilitary hostages, including women, children, and the elderly and sick. In exchange, Hamas has demanded the release of all Palestinian women, children, men over 50 and sick inmates held in Israeli prisons, in addition to 1,500 male Palestinian prisoners, 500 of whom Hamas would choose from among those serving life or long-term sentences.

During this stage, Israeli troops should withdraw from populated areas; at least 500 trucks of humanitarian aid should enter Gaza each day; displaced Gazans should be able to return to their homes and move around the Strip freely; Israel should allow more wounded Palestinians to seek medical treatment abroad; and hospitals should be repaired and shelters built, according to the Hamas counteroffer.

The second phase would see militants release all male Israeli hostages in exchange for additional Palestinian prisoner releases and the complete withdrawal of Israel forces from Gaza. The Hamas reply says talks to pave the way to “the return of a state of complete calm” must occur before this stage.

During the final 45-day phase, Hamas would return the remains of Israelis in exchange for the bodies of Palestinians held by Israel.

About 100 hostages are believed to still be alive, and Israeli officials say that Hamas is holding at least 31 dead bodies.

The “vast majority” of the dead were killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel, according to a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

During a previous pause in the fighting in November, 105 hostages – 81 Israelis and 24 foreign nationals – were released in exchange for more than 200 Palestinian prisoners.

The Israeli government has been under intense pressure from many families of hostages to bring their loved ones home, as well as from those formerly held in Gaza.

“Netanyahu, if you continue your policy of eliminating Hamas, I fear there will be no hostages (left) to save,” former hostage Adina Moshe said after the prime minister’s speech Wednesday.

But other families have backed calls by far-right officials to continue fighting until Hamas is eradicated from the Gaza Strip. Zvika Mor, father of Eitan Mor, who was abducted from the Nova music festival on Oct. 7, urged Israel to press on with its war. “You cannot do peace now,” he said at a briefing Wednesday.

Miki Zohar, a minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, told the Post this week that Netanyahu would not have the majority to gain approval for a deal that requires the “release of thousands of terrorists with blood on their hands, in exchange for part of the hostages, and a long-term stop in fighting.”

Israel would require more “acceptable terms: one month or 11/2 months of a stop in fighting, because we have no intention of stopping the fighting, and a more reasonable number of terrorists — a few hundred, for example,” he said.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has killed more than 27,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Netanyahu said Wednesday the Israel Defense Forces had been directed to operate in Rafah, which he called one of “Hamas’ last strongholds.” He said civilians in Rafah would be given “safe passage,” but it was unclear where else they could go.

More than a million Palestinians are crammed into the tiny strip of land along the border with Egypt. Many are living in unsanitary conditions in tents or makeshift structures, struggling to find food or receive medical treatment. Aid groups have warned a famine is looming. Israel has intensified its bombing of Rafah this week, with five attacks killing 12 people in the area on Tuesday alone.

Top U.N. officials, as well as many governments around the world, have called for a cease-fire, warning that a catastrophic humanitarian situation is worsening by the day. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Wednesday he was “especially alarmed” about reports Israel could soon send forces into Rafah.

“Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” Guterres told the U.N. General Assembly.

Israeli authorities dropped leaflets over Rafah on Monday warning they planned to bomb the area, without giving instructions on where civilians should evacuate.

“Dropping leaflets like this on Rafah, in light of talk about a military operation, raises our fears in an incredible way,” Ahmed Ismail Musa, 27, told The Post. Musa’s family was already displaced earlier in the war.

“We live in the most crowded area,” he said. “Our options will be nonexistent.”

Blinken’s trip to Israel caps his fifth visit to the Middle East since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack killed about 1,200 Israelis, sparking Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza. On Monday and Tuesday, Blinken met with top officials in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar to discuss efforts to reach a cease-fire deal.

Blinken also met Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

The Biden administration is under significant domestic and international pressure to push Israel to end the war or do more to avoid civilian casualties and increase the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid to the besieged enclave. Washington also aims to keep a lid on attacks by Iranian proxies across the region in response to Israel’s war in Gaza.

The United States hopes that the initial pause would pave the way to a more permanent resolution to the conflict. Washington is pushing for that settlement to include a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a foreign policy priority of the Biden administration before the Oct. 7 attacks roiled the region.

But Riyadh on Wednesday made clear it would only begin diplomatic relations with Israel if “all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip” and a viable Palestinian state is established.

“The Kingdom has communicated its firm position to the U.S. administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” a statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry said.