Hamas accepts Gaza ceasefire proposal after Israel orders evacuation of Rafah ahead of attack




Sam Mednick, Josef Federman and Bassem Mroue, Associated Press



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





Last updated Monday, May 6, 2024 1:20 pmEDT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hamas announced Monday that it accepted an Egyptian-Qatari proposal for a ceasefire to stop the seven-month war with Israel in Gaza, hours after Israel ordered about 100,000 Palestinians to begin evacuating the southern city. of Rafah, indicating that a long-promised ground invasion could be imminent.

There was no immediate comment from Israel on the deal and details of the proposal have not yet been published. In recent days, Egyptian and Hamas officials have said the ceasefire would occur in a series of stages during which Hamas would release hostages it is holding in exchange for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

It is unclear whether the deal will satisfy Hamas’s key demand to end the war and complete the Israeli withdrawal.

Hamas said in a statement that its top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, had broken the news in a phone call with Qatar’s prime minister and Egypt’s intelligence minister. After the statement was released, Palestinians erupted in cheers in the sprawling camps around Rafah, hoping the deal would mean an Israeli attack had been averted.

Israel’s closest allies, including the United States, have repeatedly said that Israel should not attack Rafah. The impending operation has raised global alarm over the fate of around 1.4 million Palestinians taking refuge there.

Aid agencies have warned that an offensive will worsen Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe and lead to a wave of civilian deaths in an Israeli campaign that in almost seven months has killed 34,000 people and devastated the territory.

US President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and reiterated US concerns about an invasion of Rafah. Biden said a ceasefire with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, a National Security Council spokesperson said on condition of anonymity to discuss the call before an official statement was released from the White House.

Hamas and key mediator Qatar said the Rafah invasion will derail efforts by international mediators to negotiate a ceasefire. Days earlier, Hamas had been discussing a US-backed proposal that reportedly raised the possibility of ending the war and withdrawing Israeli troops in exchange for the release of all hostages held by the group. Israeli officials have rejected that compensation and have vowed to continue their campaign until Hamas is destroyed.

Netanyahu said on Monday that taking Rafah, which Israel says is the last major Hamas stronghold in Gaza, was vital to ensuring the militants cannot rebuild their military capabilities and repeat the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the war.

Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, an army spokesman, said about 100,000 people were being ordered to move from parts of Rafah to a nearby 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 whether that material was already ready to accommodate the newcomers.

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.

After the evacuation order was announced on Monday, Palestinians in Rafah struggled with the need to uproot their extended families once again for an unknown destination, exhausted after months living in sprawling tent camps or crammed into schools or other shelters in and around the city. Few who spoke to The Associated Press wanted to risk staying.

Mohammed Jindiyah said that at the beginning of the war he had tried to hold out in his home in northern Gaza after Israel ordered an evacuation there in October. He ended up suffering intense shelling before fleeing to Rafah.

This time he is carrying out the order, but now he is not sure 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.”

Israeli military pamphlets were released with maps detailing a number of eastern Rafah neighborhoods that needed to be evacuated, 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.

UNRWA will not evacuate Rafah so it can continue providing aid to those left behind, said Scott Anderson, the agency’s director in Gaza.

“We will provide help to people wherever they choose to be,” he told the AP.

The UN says an attack on Rafah could disrupt the distribution of aid keeping Palestinians alive throughout Gaza. The Rafah crossing into Egypt, the main entry point for aid to Gaza, is in the evacuation zone. The crossing remained open on Monday following the Israeli order.

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, but Shoshani said that would not affect the amount of aid coming into Gaza, as others are working.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes in Rafah killed 22 people, including children and two babies, according to a hospital.

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 captive about 100 Israelis, as well as the bodies of 30 others.

The ceasefire mediators — the United States, Egypt and Qatar — appeared to be struggling to salvage a ceasefire deal they had been trying to push through last week. Egypt said it was in contact with all parties on Monday to “prevent the situation… from getting out of control.”

CIA Director William Burns, who had been in Cairo to discuss the deal, was headed to meet Qatar’s prime minister, an official familiar with the matter said. It was unclear whether a subsequent trip to Israel that had been planned would take place. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations behind closed doors.

In a fiery speech Sunday night marking Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Netanyahu rejected international pressure to stop the war, saying that “if Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”

On Monday, Netanyahu accused Hamas of “torpedoing” an agreement by not budging on its demand for an end to the war and a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops in exchange for the release of the hostages, which he called “extreme.”

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Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut. Zeke Miller contributed to this report from Washington.


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