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Israel says Rafah operations will go ahead as Hamas deal remains ‘far’ from meeting its demands

Israel said the terms of a ceasefire deal Hamas accepted on Monday remained “far from” meeting its demands and warned its military operations in Rafah would continue, even as it sent negotiators to talk to mediators.

In a statement Monday, Hamas said the head of its political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, told the Qatari prime minister and Egyptian intelligence minister that the militant group had accepted their proposals for a ceasefire and hostage deal.

Palestinians celebrated that statement in the streets of Gaza, while in Tel Aviv, hostage families and their supporters implored Israel’s leaders to accept the deal.

However, shortly afterwards, Israel said the terms Hamas had accepted were still far from meeting its “requirements,” and reiterated its commitment to an offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, saying its war cabinet had “unanimously decided” to continue with the operation “to exert military pressure on Hamas.” It did agree, though, to send a delegation to the mediators for further talks.

The news comes just hours after Israel ordered Palestinians living in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, to “evacuate immediately.”

The order raised fears that Israel’s long-threatened assault on the city could be imminent. More than 1 million Palestinians have fled to Rafah, where Hamas is believed to have regrouped after Israel’s destruction of much of the north of Gaza.

The Biden administration remains opposed to Israel going into Rafah, White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

No agreement

Ceasefire talks will continue on Tuesday, the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Dr. Majed bin Mohammed Al-Ansari said in a statement early on Tuesday local time.

The Qatari delegation will head to Cairo on Tuesday morning to continue indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas after Hamas sent a response to mediators involved in the ceasefire proposal which “can be described as positive,” he said.

The Qatari announcement comes amid international calls for an agreement to be reached on a ceasefire and hostage release deal. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday called on the Israeli government and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire deal after the announcement by Hamas.

A senior Israeli and a senior US official said that Hamas had agreed to a framework proposal, which diverges from the one Israel had helped craft with Egypt. The latest proposal calls for an end to the war, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously said he will not accept, the senior American official said.

According to a press release, Hamas said it would not back down from its demands in the latest proposal, which include a “ceasefire, complete withdrawal, dignified exchange, reconstruction, and lifting of the blockade.”

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said Monday there were “significant gaps” between Israel and Hamas. “Despite this, we continue to turn over every stone and a delegation will go to Cairo.”

A previous framework, which Israel helped craft but had not fully agreed to, called for the release of between 20 and 33 hostages over several weeks in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

After the initial exchange, according to that framework, there would follow what sources describe as the “restoration of sustainable calm” during which the remaining hostages, captive Israeli soldiers and the bodies of hostages would be exchanged for more Palestinian prisoners.

The White House on Monday confirmed that there had “been a response from Hamas” to a proposed hostage deal in Israel, and that US President Joe Biden had been briefed on that response, but otherwise declined to weigh in specifically on what a deal could entail.

Biden is “aware of where the situation and where the process is,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told a press briefing. CIA Director Bill Burns remains in the region “working in real time on the ground,” Kirby added.

“We still believe that reaching an agreement is the absolute best outcome not only for the hostages, but for the Palestinian people and we’re not going to stop working to that outcome,” he said.

IDF operations ongoing

Asked whether Hamas’ acceptance of a deal could change Israel’s plans for Rafah, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Daniel Hagari said the military would continue to operate in Gaza. He said operations are ongoing, but that the IDF is making every effort in the negotiations to bring the hostages home as “fast as possible.”

Netanyahu has come under fierce pressure from the more extreme wing of his coalition not to accept the ceasefire proposal outlined last week, and to focus instead on destroying Hamas in Rafah.

Orit Strook, Israel’s settlements minister and a member of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said last week that accepting the deal would “throw” Israel’s military progress “in the trash.”

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, said Netanyahu had “promised that Israel would enter Rafah, assured that the war would not end, and pledged that there would be no reckless deal.”

But large parts of the Israeli public have demanded Netanyahu accept a deal. Families and supporters of the hostages blocked the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv last week, holding a banner reading: “Rafah or the hostages – choose life.”

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet but seen as a rival and possible successor to Netanyahu, said the return of hostages was more urgent that entering Rafah.

Responding to Monday’s announcement by Hamas, the Hostages Families Forum said: “Now is the time for all that are involved, to fulfil their commitment and turn this opportunity into a deal for the return of all the hostages.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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