Israel gives Hamas one chance to avoid Rafah invasion

    West Jerusalem will suspend the controversial operation if the militant group frees some hostages, the Israeli finance minister has said.

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    Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz has warned that an invasion of the city of Rafah will go ahead unless Hamas agrees to release some of the Israeli hostages still held in Gaza. Hamas is expected to comment on an Israeli truce proposal imminently.

    Israeli officials have been threatening to launch a ground operation in Rafah for several months now, despite strong opposition from the US and UN. Located in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border, Rafah is currently home to around 1.4 million displaced Palestinians from the northern reaches of the enclave, and an invasion of the city would have “terrible consequences” for the civilians living there, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned earlier this month.

    “If there is a deal, we will suspend the operation,” Katz told Israel’s Channel 12 on Saturday. “The release of the hostages is a deep priority for us,” he continued, adding: “If there is an option to make a deal, we will do it.”

    Hamas captured around 250 hostages during its October 7 assault on Israel, of whom 130 are believed to still be held in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under intense pressure from the hostages’ families to cut a deal with the militants to release their loved ones, with weekly protests taking place in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

    In a proof-of-life video released by Hamas on Saturday, Israeli-American hostage Kieth Siegel urges Netanyahu to “be more flexible in negotiations to reach an exchange deal soon.”

    Hamas presented Israel with ceasefire terms earlier this month, and received Israel’s counter-proposal on Friday, the group said in a statement on Saturday. Hamas said that it is studying the proposal, and Israeli officials anticipate a response by the end of the weekend, Channel 12 reported.

    Israel and Hamas agreed to a week-long truce in November, during which 80 Israeli hostages were exchanged for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Despite the efforts of Egyptian and Qatari mediators, subsequent efforts to broker a ceasefire have failed, with Netanyahu refusing to consider Hamas’ demands that any ceasefire deal be permanent and include an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

    Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel led a delegation to Israel on Friday to discuss an alternate deal that would see Hamas release some hostages in exchange for Israel freeing a significant number of Palestinian prisoners and allowing displaced Palestinians to return to their homes in northern Gaza “with minimal restrictions,” an anonymous Egyptian official told the Associated Press.

    This deal has already been rejected by hardliners within Netanyahu’s cabinet. “Agreeing to the Egyptian deal is a humiliating surrender, and it grants victory to the Nazis on the backs of the hundreds of heroic IDF soldiers who fell in battle,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Sunday. “It imposes a death sentence on the hostages who are not included in the deal, and above all, it poses an immediate existential danger to the state of Israel.”


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