Hamas accepts ceasefire in Gaza; Israel says it will continue talks but launches attacks in Rafah

Sam Mednick, Josef Federman and Bassem Mroue, Associated Press

Published on Monday, May 6, 2024 1:20 pmEDT

Last updated Monday, May 6, 2024 4:05 pmEDT

JERUSALEM (AP) – After Hamas announced Monday its acceptance of a ceasefire proposal between Egypt and Qatar, Israel said its leaders approved a military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and began attack targets in the area. Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would send negotiators to continue talks on the deal.

The high-risk diplomatic moves and military brinkmanship left a glimmer of hope alive, if barely, for a deal that could bring at least a pause to the seven-month war that has devastated the Gaza Strip. Looming over the dispute was the threat of an all-out Israeli attack on Rafah, a move that the United States strongly opposes and that aid groups warn will be disastrous for some 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering there.

Hamas’s abrupt acceptance of the ceasefire agreement came hours after Israel ordered the evacuation of Palestinians from the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah, signaling that an invasion was imminent.

Netanyahu’s office said the proposal Hamas accepted was “far from Israel’s essential demands” but that he would still send negotiators to continue talks on a deal.

At the same time, the Israeli military said it was carrying out “targeted strikes” against Hamas in eastern Rafah. The nature of the attacks was not immediately known, but the move could be aimed at keeping pressure on the Rafah threat while talks continue.

President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reiterated US concerns about an invasion of Rafah, telling him that a ceasefire was the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages, according to a Security Council spokesperson. Nacional, who spoke on condition of anonymity. to discuss the call before an official White House statement was released.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said US officials were reviewing Hamas’ response “and discussing it with our partners in the region.” A U.S. official said the United States was examining whether Hamas accepted a version of the deal that had been signed by Israel and international negotiators or something else.

Details of the proposal have not been published. Touring the region last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Hamas to accept the deal, and Egyptian officials said it called for a multi-stage ceasefire, starting with a limited release of hostages and a withdrawal. of Israeli troops inside Gaza. The two sides would also negotiate a “permanent calm” that would lead to a full release of the hostages and further Israeli withdrawal from the territory, they said.

Hamas had been seeking clearer guarantees for its key demand to end the war and complete the Israeli withdrawal in exchange for the release of all its hostages, according to Egyptian officials. It was not immediately known if any changes were made.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have repeatedly rejected that compensation, vowing to continue their campaign until Hamas is destroyed after its Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the war.

Israel says Rafah is the last major Hamas stronghold in Gaza, and Netanyahu said on Monday that the offensive against the city was vital to ensure the militants cannot rebuild their military capabilities.

But it faces strong American opposition. After the Israeli evacuation order was issued, Miller said the United States has not seen a credible, implementable plan to protect Palestinian civilians. “We cannot support an operation in Rafah as currently planned,” he said.

The imminent operation has generated global alarm. Aid agencies have warned that an offensive will lead to a spike in more civilian deaths in an Israeli campaign that has already killed 34,000 people and devastated territory. They could also ruin the Rafah-based humanitarian aid operation that is keeping Palestinians alive across the Gaza Strip, they say.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk on Monday called the evacuation order “inhumane.”

“Gaza residents continue to suffer from bombings, disease and even famine. And today they have been told that they must relocate once again,” he said. “This will only expose them to more danger and misery.

Israeli military leaflets were dropped ordering the evacuation of the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah, warning that an attack was imminent and that anyone who stayed “puts themselves and their families in danger.” Text messages and radio broadcasts repeated the message.

The army told people to move to an Israeli-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi, a makeshift camp on the coast. He said Israel has expanded the size of the zone to include tents, food, water and field hospitals.

However, it was not immediately clear if that was already in place.

Around 450,000 displaced Palestinians are already taking refuge in Muwasi. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said it has been providing help to them. But conditions are squalid, with few bathrooms or sanitation facilities in this largely rural area, forcing families to dig private latrines.

The evacuation order left Palestinians in Rafah struggling with the need to uproot their families once again for an unknown fate, exhausted after months living in sprawling tent camps or crammed into schools or other shelters in the city and its surroundings.

Mohammed Jindiyah said that at the beginning of the war he had tried to hold out in his home in northern Gaza under heavy shelling before fleeing to Rafah.

This time he is complying with Israel’s evacuation order, but was now unsure whether to move to Muwasi or another city in central Gaza.

“We are 12 families and we don’t know where to go. There is no safe zone in Gaza,” he stated.

Sahar Abu Nahel, who fled to Rafah with 20 relatives, including her children and grandchildren, wiped tears from her cheeks, desperate for a new movement.

“I don’t have money or anything. “I am very tired, as are the children,” she said. “Perhaps it is more honorable for us to die. “We are being humiliated.”

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, condemned the “forced and illegal” evacuation order and the idea that people should go to Muwasi.

“The area is already overloaded and deprived of vital services,” Egeland said. He said an Israeli attack could lead to “the deadliest phase of this war.”

Israel’s bombing and ground offensives in Gaza have killed more than 34,700 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them children and women, according to Gaza health officials. The count does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. According to the UN, more than 80% of the population of 2.3 million have been driven from their homes and hundreds of thousands in the north are on the brink of famine.

Tensions rose on Sunday when Hamas fired rockets at Israeli troops positioned on the Gaza border near Israel’s main crossing to deliver humanitarian aid, killing four soldiers. Israel closed the crossing.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes on Rafah killed 22 people, including children and two babies.

The war was sparked by the unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel, in which Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped about 250 hostages. After exchanges during a ceasefire in November, Hamas is believed to still be holding about 100 Israelis, as well as the bodies of about 30 others.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Samy Magdy in Cairo and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.

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