Meeting leaders in Israel, Blinken urges for Gaza truce as Hamas hits back at criticism

Meeting leaders in Israel, Blinken urges for Gaza truce as Hamas hits back at criticism
Hamas hit back at comments made by Washington's Blinken that the group was delaying a ceasefire in Gaza, as the US diplomat visits Israel.
5 min read
Blinken was greeted outside his Tel Aviv hotel by Israeli demonstrators waving US flags [Getty]

Top US diplomat Antony Blinken urged Hamas to accept a truce in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, as the group responded to criticism by Israel's ally.

Blinken's comments come after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier vowed to send troops into its far southern city of Rafah.

Washington has heightened pressure on all sides to reach a ceasefire - a message pushed by Blinken, who was on his seventh regional tour since the Gaza war broke out on October 7.

An Israeli official told AFP the government "will wait for answers until Wednesday night", and then "make a decision" whether to send a delegation to indirect talks being brokered by US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo.

The Palestinian group said it was considering a plan for a 40-day ceasefire and the exchange of scores of hostages for larger numbers of Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas, whose envoys returned from Cairo talks to their base in Qatar, would "discuss the ideas and the proposal", said a Hamas source, adding: "We are keen to respond as quickly as possible."

Blinken put the ball squarely in Hamas's court.

"There is a very strong proposal on the table right now. Hamas needs to say yes, and needs to get this done," he said.

But senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri responded to Blinken on Wednesday, saying it was unfair that he is blaming the delay of a ceasefire agreement on the group.

"Blinken's comments contradict reality. It is not strange for Blinken, who is known as the foreign minister of Israel, not America, to make such a statement," Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

"Even the Israeli negotiating team admitted Netanyahu was the one who was hindering reaching an agreement," he added.

Abu Zuhri said that the group was still studying the recent ceasefire offer.


Rafah differences

Hours before Blinken landed in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu fired a shot across his bows, vowing to send Israeli ground troops into Rafah despite repeated US warnings of the potential for heavy casualties among the 1.5 million civilians sheltering in the city.

"We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there with or without a deal," the right-wing premier told hostage families, his office said.

Ahead of what promised to be a difficult meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Blinken too met privately with hostage relatives in Tel Aviv.

In rare scenes for the top US diplomat, who has faced furore at home and abroad over the administration's support for Israel in its offensive on Gaza, Blinken was greeted outside his Tel Aviv hotel by Israeli demonstrators waving US flags.

Blinken told them that freeing the hostages was "at the heart of everything we're trying to do".

The estimates that 129 Israelis remain captive in Gaza, 34 of whom are presumed dead. Some have been killed by Israeli strikes or shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Many of their families have expressed hope that US pressure may force Netanyahu to agree a deal for their release.


More routes for aid

On the previous leg of his regional tour in Jordan, Blinken said a Gaza truce and the redoubling of aid deliveries went hand in hand.

A truce is "the most effective way to relieve the suffering" of civilians in Gaza, he told reporters near Amman.

Blinken saw off a first Jordanian truck convoy of aid heading to Gaza through the Erez crossing reopened by Israel.

"It is real and important progress, but more still needs to be done," he said.

UN agencies have warned that without urgent intervention, famine looms in Gaza, particularly in northern areas which are hardest to reach.

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A US-built floating pier on Gaza's coast is expected to be completed later this week, said Cyprus, the departure point for the planned "maritime corridor".

Blinken said the pier would "significantly increase the assistance" but was not "a substitute" for greater overland access.

In northern Gaza's Beit Lahia, across from Erez crossing, 24-year-old farmer Yussef Abu Rabih was replanting plots he said had been "completely destroyed" by the fighting.

"We decided to return to farming despite difficult conditions and scarce resources" after suffering "severe hunger", he told AFP.


'Unbearable escalation'

The war was triggered on October 7 after a Hamas-led attack in southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures. Hamas says the attack was in retaliation to Israel's decades-long occupation and aggression against the Palestinians.

Israel's ruthless offensive has killed at least 34,568 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the territory. Thousands more are buried beneath the rubble and presumed dead.

Washington has strongly backed its ally Israel but also pressured it to refrain from a ground invasion of Rafah, which is packed with displaced civilians.

Calev Ben-Dor, a former analyst for the Israeli foreign ministry and now deputy editor for specialised review Fathom, told AFP that Netanyahu's "Rafah comments likely have more to do with trying to keep his coalition intact, rather than operational plans in the near term".

The prime minister "is feeling the squeeze between the Biden administration" and far-right members of his government who have vehemently opposed the proposed truce, Ben-Dor said.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said an Israeli assault on Rafah would "be an unbearable escalation, killing thousands more civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee".