Biden and Netanyahu speak as ceasefire pressure grows on Israel and Hamas

The White House said US President Joe Biden has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again as pressure builds on Israel and Hamas to reach a deal that would free some Israeli hostages and bring about a ceasefire after nearly seven months of war in Gaza.

Mr Biden reiterated his “clear position” as Israel plans to invade Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, despite global concern for more than one million Palestinians sheltering there, officials said.

The US opposes the invasion on humanitarian grounds, straining relations between the allies.

The US secretary of state Antony Blinken is returning to the Middle East on Monday.

Joe Biden
Mr Biden has held discussions with the Israeli Prime Minister (AP)

It was less stark than their previous call this month in which Mr Biden warned that future American support for Israel in the war depends on swift implementation of new steps to protect civilians and aid workers. There was no comment from Mr Netanyahu’s office on the latest call.

A senior official from key intermediary Qatar, meanwhile, urged Israel and Hamas to show “more commitment and more seriousness” in negotiations.

Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ headquarters in Doha, was instrumental along with the US and Egypt in helping negotiate a brief halt to the fighting in November that led to the release of dozens of hostages. But in a sign of frustration, Qatar this month said that it was reassessing its role.

An Israeli delegation is expected in Egypt in the coming days to discuss the latest proposals in negotiations, and senior Hamas official Basem Naim said in a message to The Associated Press that a delegation from the militant group will also head to Cairo. Egypt’s state-owned al-Qahera TV said the delegation would arrive on Monday.

Antony Blinken
US secretary of state Antony Blinken is returning to the Middle East for a fresh attempt at a diplomatic solution (AP)

Mr al-Ansari expressed disappointment with Hamas and Israel, saying each side has made decisions based on political interests and not with civilians’ welfare in mind. He did not reveal details on the talks other than to say they have “effectively stopped”, with “both sides entrenched in their positions”.

His remarks came after an Egyptian delegation discussed with Israeli officials a “new vision” for a prolonged ceasefire in Gaza, according to an Egyptian official.

Rabbis call for ceasefire
Activists and a delegation of American and Israeli rabbis from Rabbis for Ceasefire rally near the Erez crossing to the Gaza Strip (AP)

The second phase would start after the release of civilian and sick hostages, and would include negotiating the release of soldiers, the official added. Senior Palestinian prisoners would be released and a reconstruction process launched.

Negotiations earlier this month centred on a six-week ceasefire proposal and the release of 40 civilian and sick hostages held by Hamas in exchange for freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

A letter written by Mr Biden and 17 other world leaders urged Hamas to release the hostages immediately. Hamas in recent days has released new videos of three hostages, an apparent push for Israel to make concessions.

The growing pressure for Hamas and Israel to reach a ceasefire deal is also meant to avert an Israeli attack on Rafah, the city on the border with Egypt where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is seeking shelter.

protests in Israel
Fresh protests against Mr Netanyahu’s government took place in Tel Aviv (AP)

“Only a small strike is all it takes to force everyone to leave Palestine,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asserted to the opening session of the World Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia, adding that he believed an invasion would happen within days.

But White House national security spokesman John Kirby told ABC that Israel “assured us they won’t go into Rafah until we’ve had a chance to really share our perspectives and concerns with them. So, we’ll see where that goes”.

The Israeli troop build-up may also be a pressure tactic on Hamas in talks. Israel sees Rafah as Hamas’ last major stronghold. It vows to destroy the group’s military and governing capabilities.

Aid groups have warned that an invasion of Rafah would worsen the already desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza, where hunger is widespread. About 400 tonnes of aid arrived on Sunday at the Israeli port of Ashdod – the largest shipment yet by sea via Cyprus – according to the United Arab Emirates.

Also on Sunday, World Central Kitchen said that it would resume operations in Gaza on Monday, ending a four-week suspension after Israeli military drones killed seven of its aid workers.

The organization has 276 trucks ready to enter through the Rafah crossing and will also send trucks into Gaza from Jordan, a statement said. It is also examining if the Ashdod port can be used to offload supplies.

The war was sparked by Hamas’ attack on October 7 into southern Israel, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, who say another 250 people were taken hostage.

Hamas and other groups are holding about 130 people, including the remains of about 30, Israeli authorities say.

Israel’s retaliatory assault on Hamas has killed more than 34,000 people, most of them women and children, according to health authorities in Gaza, who do not distinguish between civilians and combatants in their tally.

The Israeli military blames Hamas for civilian casualties, accusing it of embedding in residential and public areas. It claims it has killed at least 12,000 militants.

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