US scrambles to salvage cease-fire talks as Israel chokes off Rafah

US scrambles to salvage cease-fire talks as Israel chokes off Rafah

The White House on Tuesday pushed to finalize a cease-fire agreement that would pause fighting in Gaza, even as Israel carried out a limited military operation to take control of a key border crossing into Rafah.

The U.S., along with Egypt and Qatar, has worked for weeks on a truce proposal between Israel and Hamas that would secure the release of Israeli hostages. And while Hamas on Monday said it had accepted an offer for a temporary cease-fire, Israel said the group’s terms fell short of its core demands.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is laying down a high-stakes bet that launching military operations on the southern Gazan city of Rafah will increase pressure on Hamas.

“We understand that the time is running out for the life of the hostages,” said Israel Ziv, former commander of the Gaza Division and former head of the Israeli Operations Directorate, in a call with reporters Tuesday morning.

“The first priority is to maximize the option for the deal … that is what the maximum pressure is about,” he continued.

White House national security communications adviser John Kirby told reporters Tuesday the U.S. was closely monitoring Israel’s actions in Rafah, though he indicated it did not rise to the level of a full-scale military operation that U.S. officials had warned against. The operation, Kirby said, was aimed at cutting off Hamas’s ability to ship arms across the border into Rafah.

“How they’ve described this is not of a size, scale, duration and scope that one could equate to a major ground operation. But again, it’s just started,” Kirby said. “The president was very clear yesterday about his consistent concerns on that. So we’re going to keep watching it.”

“We don’t support operations in Rafah that put at greater risk the 1.5 million people that are seeking refuge there,” he added.

Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday Israeli forces were prepared to deepen its operation in Gaza if cease-fire talks fell through, a sign of the precarious state of play in the region.

CIA Director Bill Burns, who has led U.S. efforts in the talks, reportedly arrived Tuesday in Cairo, along with delegations from Israel, Hamas, Egypt and Qatar. The U.S. and Israel do not engage directly with Hamas, which is a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

Kirby told reporters the U.S. was optimistic the delegations could hammer out remaining differences over the cease-fire agreement.

“Our understanding of the text is they should be able to close these gaps, and hopefully very, very soon,” Kirby said.

“I really don’t want to get into talking about the specific parameters,” Kirby added. “At this very delicate stage, at a very sensitive time in where we are with the negotiations, I think it’s best to let the negotiators hammer out the existing gaps.”

The White House has for months tried to secure a cease-fire agreement in Gaza that would free hostages taken by Hamas during the attack in Israel last October, while also allowing more humanitarian aid to get into Gaza, where more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands more are without adequate food, water and medicine.

President Biden has grown frustrated with Netanyahu in recent months, even suggesting the U.S. could reassess its support for Israel if it did not do more to protect civilians and aid workers in Gaza.

While the Biden administration reportedly paused a shipment of ammunition to Israel, the reason for doing so remains unclear. A national security supplemental package Biden signed into law last month provides nearly $27 billion in military assistance related to Israeli and U.S. security needs.

Biden has sought to balance his vow to support Israel with public warnings that Netanyahu needs to change his approach. On Tuesday, he sought to underscore that he would not abandon Israel, even amid friction between the two.

“My commitment to the safety of the Jewish people, the security of Israel and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad, even when we disagree,” Biden said in a speech condemning antisemitism at the U.S. Capitol.

Israel estimates there are 133 Israeli hostages in Gaza, but it’s unclear how many remain alive or in Hamas control. While Israel has called for 40 of the most vulnerable hostages — children, women, the elderly and wounded — to be evacuated in the first phase of a deal, Jerusalem said Hamas negotiators have indicated they can barely reach that number.

The main difference in demands between Israel and Hamas appear to be centered on the length of the pause in fighting — Hamas is demanding the cease-fire leading to an end to the war; Israel’s war aims are to eliminate Hamas’s ability to rule Gaza.

Other sticking points are Hamas’s demands to name the Palestinian prisoners it wants released from Israeli jails, while Israel wants control over the list; and the number of days for a cease-fire related to the number of people released by each side.

Soon after Hamas’s announcement of accepting a cease-fire deal, the Israeli war Cabinet on Monday night voted unanimously to proceed with what it describes as a limited operation on Rafah while keeping negotiations for a hostage release and cease-fire alive.

The Israeli military said it carried out airstrikes on eastern Rafah and seized the border crossing with Egypt on Monday night, after sending alerts through text, flyers and phone calls to an estimated 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate the area of expected conflict.

The operation was launched despite warnings from Biden to Netanyahu in a phone call Monday morning Eastern time. Biden has long warned Netanyahu against launching an operation in Rafah absent a credible plan to protect civilians, with more than 1 million displaced Palestinians sheltering in the city.

The Rafah crossing with Egypt is a main artery for humanitarian aid being brought into Gaza and an exit for Palestinians able to leave. Hostages released by Hamas during a weeklong cease-fire in November were transferred through the Rafah crossing.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, amplifying alarm from aid groups, called for Israel to deescalate around Rafah, calling a full-scale assault on the southern city “a human catastrophe.”

“Rafah is the epicenter of humanitarian operations in Gaza. Attacking Rafah will further upend our efforts to support people in dire humanitarian straits as famine looms,” Guterres said.

“Even the best friends of Israel are clear: An assault on Rafah would be a strategic mistake, a political calamity, and a humanitarian nightmare.”

Ziv, the retired Israeli general, described the Israeli government’s thinking on seizing the Rafah crossing as sending a clear message to Hamas.

“Rafah passage, this is the main strategic passage to the Gaza Strip, and of course by holding that, it’s kind of holding the airway for Gaza by Israel,” he said.

“This is supposed to give the Hamas a clear understanding that Israel has the main key.”

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