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Blinken urges Middle East leaders to press Hamas for Gaza ceasefire

Published 06/10/2024, 01:02 AM
Updated 06/10/2024, 04:11 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the press at the port of Ashdod, in Ashdod, Israel, May 1, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/File Photo

By Daphne Psaledakis

CAIRO/TEL AVIV (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged Arab leaders to pressure Hamas to accept a ceasefire proposal outlined ten days ago by U.S. President Joe Biden to end the eight month-long war in Gaza.

Blinken is on his eighth visit to the region since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, triggering the bloodiest episode in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trip comes as Washington seeks to increase pressure on Hamas to agree to a ceasefire deal with Israel and ensure the war does not expand into Lebanon.

Blinken said Hamas was the only outlier in not accepting the proposal for a three-phase deal involving the release of hostages and talks toward an end to fighting, to which he said Israel had agreed.

Hamas said in May it had agreed to a deal for a ceasefire and hostage-for-prisoners swap, but an Israeli official said at the time the deal was not acceptable to Israel because terms had been "softened."

"My message to governments throughout the region, to people throughout the region, is if you want a ceasefire, press Hamas to say yes," Blinken told reporters before departing Egypt, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

A senior Hamas official told Reuters that Blinken's Gaza ceasefire comments were "biased to Israel."

MEETING WITH NETANYAHU

Blinken arrived in Israel on Monday evening, where he updated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on "ongoing diplomatic efforts to plan for the post-conflict period," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a readout of the meeting.

Blinken also "reiterated that the proposal on the table would unlock the possibility of calm along Israel’s northern border and further integration with countries in the region," Miller said.

Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel have been trading fire across the Israeli-Lebanese border since the onset of the Gaza war. Both sides say they are prepared for possible escalation.

The top U.S. diplomat said he would also discuss plans for governance and reconstruction in post-conflict Gaza during meetings with regional leaders in Jordan and Qatar.

The Hamas attack killed 1,200 people and took some 250 others hostage, according to Israeli tallies. In response, Israel launched an assault on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said in its Sunday update, and reduced the enclave to a wasteland.

U.S. President Joe Biden on May 31 outlined a three-phase ceasefire proposal from Israel that envisions a permanent end to hostilities, the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, and the reconstruction of Gaza.

Blinken said Egyptian officials had been in communication with Hamas as recently as a few hours ago.

There was a sense of urgency on getting an answer from Hamas on the deal, he said, but declined to further detail his talks.

Ceasefire talks have intensified since Biden's speech and CIA director William Burns met senior officials from mediators Qatar and Egypt on Wednesday in Doha to discuss the plan.

Biden has repeatedly declared that ceasefires were close over the past several months, but there has been just one, week-long truce, in November.

Israeli forces rescued four hostages held by Hamas since October in a raid in Gaza on Saturday, during which 274 Palestinians were killed, according to Gaza's health ministry.

Blinken did not respond when asked whether the raid had worsened hopes for a deal.

"Ultimately, I can't put myself - none of us can put ourselves - in the minds of Hamas or its leaders," Blinken said. "So we don't know what the answer will be."

Blinken's trip comes after Israeli minister Benny Gantz announced his resignation from Netanyahu's emergency government on Sunday, withdrawing the only centrist power in the embattled leader's otherwise far-right coalition during the war in Gaza.

© Reuters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Cairo airport, Egypt, Monday, June 10, 2024.     Amr Nabil/Pool via REUTERS

Blinken is expected to meet with Gantz on Tuesday, a senior State Department official said. They have met during previous Blinken visits to Israel.

The departure of Gantz's centrist party will not pose an immediate threat to the government. But it could have a serious impact nonetheless, leaving Netanyahu reliant on hardliners, with no end in sight to the war and a possible escalation in fighting with Lebanese Hezbollah.

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