Israel, Hamas urged to ‘finalize’ truce deal as outlined by Biden


Photo: Palestinians walk next to destroyed buildings in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on June 1, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. © Omar Al-Qattaa, AFP

Qatari, Egyptian and US mediators called on Israel and Hamas Saturday to “finalize” the truce deal outlined by US President Joe Biden, as Israeli forces pounded Rafah in southern Gaza.

Shortly after Biden’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted his country would pursue the war until it had achieved all its aims.

He reiterated that position on Saturday, saying that “Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas‘s military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages, and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel”.

Hamas, meanwhile, said it “views positively” the Israeli plan laid out by Biden.

In a joint statement, Qatar, the United States, and Egypt said that “as mediators in the ongoing discussions to secure a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages and detainees”, they “call on both Hamas and Israel to finalize the agreement embodying the principles outlined by President Joe Biden”.

In his first major address outlining a possible end to the nearly eight-month war, the US president said Israel’s three-stage offer would begin with a six-week phase that would see Israeli forces withdraw from all populated areas of Gaza.

It would also see the “release of several hostages” in exchange for “hundreds of Palestinian prisoners” held in Israeli jails.

Israel and the Palestinians would then negotiate for a lasting ceasefire, with the truce to continue so long as talks are ongoing, Biden said.

“It’s time for this war to end, for the day after to begin.”

Netanyahu offered ‘safety net’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his counterparts from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey on Friday to press the deal, and on Saturday spoke with the Qatari, Egyptian, and Emirati foreign ministers.

UN chief Antonio Guterres “strongly hopes” the latest development “will lead to an agreement by the parties for lasting peace”, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Netanyahu took issue with Biden’s presentation of what was on the table, insisting that according to the “exact outline proposed by Israel”, the transition from one stage to the next was “conditional” and crafted to allow it to maintain its war aims.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government “cannot ignore Biden’s important speech” and should accept the proposed deal, vowing to back Netanyahu if his far-right coalition partners quit over it.

“I remind Netanyahu that he has our safety net for a hostage deal,” Lapid said Saturday on social media platform X.

Shortly after, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leaders of the Israeli parliament’s two extreme-right parties, said they would leave the government if it endorses the current truce proposal.

Ben Gvir said on X his party would “dissolve the government”, while Smotrich said: “We demand the continuation of the war until Hamas is destroyed and all hostages return.”

Smotrich added he opposes the return of displaced Gazans to the territory’s north and the “wholesale release of terrorists” in a prisoner swap.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz, a centrist politician, had threatened to resign unless Netanyahu approved a post-war plan for Gaza by June 8.

Netanyahu has come under increasing domestic pressure over the fate of the remaining hostages and from a resurgent anti-government movement, with Israelis rallying again on Saturday near military headquarters in central Tel Aviv.

“Biden cares about our hostages more than Netanyahu does,” said a protester who gave her name only as Karen.

‘Wiped off the map’

The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of 1,139 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,379 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza has been devastated by intense fighting in recent weeks.  © Omar Al-Qattaa, AFP

Israel sent tanks and troops into Rafah in early May, ignoring concerns over the safety of displaced Palestinian civilians sheltering in the city on the Egyptian border.

On Saturday, residents reported tank fire in the Tal al-Sultan neighbourhood in west Rafah, while witnesses in the east and centre described intense shelling.

There was also shelling and gunfire from the Israeli army in Gaza City, in the north of the territory, an AFP reporter said.

Before the Rafah offensive began, the United Nations said up to 1.4 million people were sheltering in the city.

A handout picture released by the Israeli army showing an Israeli tank during operations in the Gaza Strip.  © Israeli Army, AFP

Since then, one million have fled the area, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said.

The Israeli seizure of the Rafah crossing has further slowed sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza’s 2.4 million people and effectively shuttered the territory’s main exit point.

Egyptian state-linked Al-Qahera News said Cairo will host a meeting with Israeli and US officials on Sunday to discuss the reopening of the Rafah crossing.

In northern Gaza, witnesses said that after carrying out a three-week operation in the town of Jabalia, troops had ordered residents of nearby Beit Hanun to evacuate ahead of an imminent assault.

The Israeli army said troops “completed their mission in eastern Jabalia and began preparation for continued operations in the Gaza Strip”.

Suad Abu Salah, 47, one of scores of displaced Palestinians who have returned to the ravaged north in recent days, told AFP that “Jabalia has been wiped off the map.”

Back in Jabalia after the Israeli offensive, she said: “We need a solution and an end to this war, so that we can live in peace.”