US says Rafah strike should not impact hostage talks ahead of expected spy chiefs meeting

Aftermath of an Israeli strike in Rafah

By Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israeli airstrikes in Rafah should not affect negotiations toward a deal between Israel and Palestinian militants Hamas on the release of hostages, a U.S. official said on Monday, ahead of expected further talks between spy chiefs in Egypt.

Senior officials from the United States, Egypt, Israel and Qatar are expected to resume negotiations on Tuesday in Cairo to work on a three-phase deal framework that will see the release of hostages and achieve an extended pause, sources familiar with the matter said.

The framework was hammered out in Paris last month by CIA Director Bill Burns, his Israeli counterpart David Barnea of the Mossad, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, who also serves as foreign minister, and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

This week's talks involving Burns and Sheikh Mohammed, among others, would take place despite a rejection by Israel last week of the Hamas counterproposal, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing some elements of it as "delusional."

But top officials from the United States have said despite some of the "non-starters" in the Hamas counterproposal, there is space to push for an agreement and that it was Washington's intention to do so.

However intensifying conflict in Rafah fueled concerns that an Israeli offensive on the southernmost pocket of Gaza, where about 1 million civilians have sought refuge from months of Israeli bombardment, could derail the hostage talks.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller declined to confirm that talks would take place on Tuesday, but said Israel's military action "should in no way impact the negotiations."

"Israel has had an ongoing military campaign, so I don't know why a new set of strikes would change the nature of these negotiations," Miller said.

Gaza health officials say more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's response to Oct. 7, when Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel and took 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. More than 100 hostages were freed in a previous hostage deal which saw fighting paused for a week.

Given Netanyahu's rejection of the proposal, there have been questions about the attendance of the Israeli delegation. When asked about whether Israeli had committed to attend Tuesday's talks, Miller said Washington would continue to pursue negotiations for the release of hostages and a pause in fighting.

"We do believe that these discussions are important," he added.

Asked about the talks, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said, “Hamas has shown great flexibility in the talks to end the aggression and swap the captives, but the occupation is still stalling and disrespecting the efforts that are being done."

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Jonathan Landay in Washington, Nidal Al-Mughrabi in Doha and Nafisa Eltahir in Cairo; additional reporting by Gabriel Araujo and Daphne Psaledakis; writing by Simon Lewis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)