Blinken: Signs of progress with Hamas for cease-fire

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that mediators would keep trying to close an elusive cease-fire deal after Hamas proposed numerous changes to a U.S.-backed plan.



June 12, 2024 - 2:19 PM

Israeli soldiers work on their tank near the Israel-Gaza border in southern Israel, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov Photo by AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that mediators would keep trying to close an elusive cease-fire deal after Hamas proposed numerous changes to a U.S.-backed plan, some of which he said were “workable” and some not.

The back-and-forth laid bare frustration over the difficulty of reaching an accord that can bring an end to eight months of war that has decimated Gaza, killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and left scores of Israeli hostages still languishing in militant captivity. Previous moments of optimism have been repeatedly dashed by the differences between the two sides.

The cease-fire proposal has global support but has not been fully embraced by Israel or Hamas. Blinken did not spell out what changes Hamas was seeking but he said the mediators — Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. — will keep trying to “close this deal.” He put the onus on Hamas, accusing it of changing its demands.

“Hamas has proposed numerous changes to the proposal that was on the table. … Some of the changes are workable. Some are not,” Blinken told reporters in Qatar. “I believe that they (the differences) are bridgeable, but that doesn’t mean they will be bridged because ultimately Hamas has to decide.”

Blinken’s comments came as Lebanon’s Hezbollah fired a massive barrage of rockets into northern Israel to avenge the killing of a top commander, further escalating regional tensions.

Hezbollah, an Iran-backed ally of Hamas, has traded fire with Israel nearly every day since the 8-month-long Israel-Hamas war began and says it will only stop if there is a truce in Gaza. That has raised fears of an even more devastating regional conflagration.

Air raid sirens sounded across northern Israel, and the military said that about 160 projectiles were fired from southern Lebanon, making it one of the largest attacks since the fighting began. There were no immediate reports of casualties as some were intercepted while others ignited brush fires.

Hamas conveyed its official reply to the proposal to mediators on Tuesday. Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha told the Lebanese news outlet ElNashra that the “amendments” requested by the group aim to guarantee a permanent cease-fire and complete Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza.

The proposal announced by U.S. President Joe Biden includes those provisions, but Hamas has expressed wariness whether Israel will implement the terms. While the U.S. says Israel has accepted the proposal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given conflicting statements, saying Israel is still intent on its goal of destroying Hamas.

Blinken, on his eighth visit to the region since the start of the war, said the deal on the table was “virtually identical” to one Hamas put forth on May 6. The U.N. Security Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of the plan on Monday.

“At some point in a negotiation and this has gone back and forth for a long time, you get to a point where if one side continues to change its demands, including making demands and insisting on changes for things that it already accepted, you have to question whether they’re proceeding in good faith or not,” he said.

Speaking alongside Blinken, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said: “We have seen the behavior from both parties on different occasions been counterproductive to the efforts.”

The proposal’s three-phase plan would begin with a six-week cease-fire and the release of some hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Israeli forces would withdraw from populated areas and Palestinian civilians would be allowed to return to their homes. Aid distribution would also increase.

At the same time, negotiations would start over the second phase, which is to bring “a permanent end to hostilities” and “full withdrawal” of Israeli troops from Gaza in exchange for the release of all remaining hostages.

Phase three would see the launch of a reconstruction plan for Gaza and the return of remains of deceased hostages.

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