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Hamas to consider ceasefire-hostage release proposal that Israeli sources say could avert Rafah invasion


By Becky Anderson and Jeremy Diamond, CNN

Riyadh and Jerusalem (CNN) — Hamas is considering a new framework proposed by Egypt that calls for the group to release as many as 33 hostages kidnapped from Israel in exchange for a pause in hostilities in Gaza, an Israeli source familiar with the negotiations and a foreign diplomatic source told CNN.

The latest proposal, which Israel helped craft but has not fully agreed to, is laid out in two phases, the first of which calls for 20 to 33 hostages to be released over several weeks in exchange for the pause and the release of Palestinian prisoners. The second phase is what sources described 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 diplomatic source familiar with the talks said the reference to sustainable calm was “a way to agree to a permanent ceasefire without calling it that.”

At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he believes a deal is “achievable because the Israelis put a strong proposal on the table.” The top diplomat, speaking to the press at a humanitarian aid site in Jordan, said Washington wants to see the agreement come together “in the coming days.”

After months of deadlock, agreement from both sides would be a major step toward ending the war. But a failure to agree could deepen Israel’s presence in Gaza – if no deal is made, Israel is likely to launch a large-scale ground invasion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering. Israel’s allies, including the United States, have warned against the operation due to the potential for large-scale civilian casualties.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Tuesday, however, that Israel would launch an operation in Rafah “with or without a deal.”

Israel is awaiting a response from Hamas, whose delegation met Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo on Monday. An Israeli official told CNN early on Tuesday that a mid-level Israeli delegation of security officials could travel to Cairo Tuesday, but it wasn’t clear if it did.

A response from Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, is expected within days.

The length of the first phase of the pause in hostilities would be linked to the number of hostages released, with the latest framework calling for a one-day pause for each hostage, the Israeli source said, although this number is expected to shift during more in-depth negotiations.

The release of 40 hostages for a six-week ceasefire had been the basis of negotiations for months, but Israel has agreed to accept fewer hostages in the first phase after Hamas dropped its offer to fewer than 20 people earlier this month.

‘Extraordinarily generous’ proposal

Blinken said on Monday that Hamas has been presented with a ceasefire proposal that is “extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel.”

“In this moment the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas,” he told World Economic Forum (WEF) President Børge Brende in the Saudi capital Riyadh. “They (Hamas) have to decide and they have to decide quickly,” he said. “I’m hopeful that they will make the right decision.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, also speaking in Riyadh, said he was hopeful that Israel and Hamas will accept the proposal.

“There is a proposal on the table, up to the two sides to consider and accept but certainly the objective is a ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire and dealing with the humanitarian conditions,” Shoukry told a panel at the WEF in Riyadh on Monday.

He said he is hopeful that “the proposal has been taken into account” and that “we are waiting to have a final decision.”

Israeli officials have expressed an openness to negotiating the “restoration of sustainable calm” as part of a comprehensive deal that would effectively end the war.

An Israeli source familiar with the negotiations said Egypt has proposed the parties agree to a one-year ceasefire as part of a comprehensive deal that would see Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza and the release of all remaining hostages and the bodies of those who have died.

CNN has reached out to the Egyptian government for comment.

Hamas has insisted that a permanent ceasefire and a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza should be part of the agreement. Israel has thus far maintained that its operation in Gaza will continue until Hamas is eradicated.

Israel has also now agreed to the unrestricted movement of Palestinians to northern Gaza, the sources said, a key demand by Hamas which has held back negotiations in the past.

Rafah operation

Hanging over the negotiations is the prospect of an Israeli military offensive in Rafah, which Israeli officials have signposted for months but are now holding back, saying they want to give space to the negotiations.

Israeli sources have characterized the latest Egyptian effort to broker a deal as the last chance to avert that offensive.

Netanyahu complicated the situation on Tuesday, telling hostage families that Israeli troops will “enter Rafah and eliminate the Hamas battalions there – with or without a deal,” according to the prime minister’s office.

On Tuesday, the Israeli military said commanders had approved “upcoming missions” for a possible offensive into Rafah, although US officials told CNN there were no signs of an imminent offensive.

The US and other allies of Israel warned such an operation would not have their support unless adequate measures were taken to ensure the safety of civilians.

Blinken said in Riyadh the US had “not yet seen a plan that civilians can be effectively protected.”

US officials do not view Israel’s recent public threats of a potential Rafah incursion as empty rhetoric, one senior administration official said, adding that some signs of preparations related to the possible displacement of civilians had been seen. The threat is also seen by US officials as part of the ongoing efforts to pressure Hamas to accept a ceasefire and hostages release deal.

“Our position on Rafah is absolutely the same,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.

“We don’t want to see a major ground operation in Rafah,” Kirby said. “Certainly, we don’t want to see operations that hadn’t factored in safety and security of those 1.5 million folks trying to seek refuge down there.”

In a call Sunday with Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden addressed the need for increased humanitarian assistance and “reiterated his clear position” on a potential Israeli invasion of Rafah, according to a White House readout of the conversation.

Philippe Lazzarini, chief of the UN’s Palestinian agency UNRWA, said there is “an extraordinary deep anxiety prevailing” in Gaza, as human rights organizations warned of “cruel” and catastrophic consequences ahead of Israel’s looming assault in Rafah.

“People have not yet been asked to evacuate from Rafah, but there is a sense that if there is no deal this week that this can happen at any time,” he said in a press conference from Geneva on Tuesday.

Rising death toll

The death toll from Israel’s bombardment in Gaza continued to climb over the weekend.

Twenty two people, including at least one infant and a toddler, were killed following an Israeli airstrike over Rafah, Gaza, overnight into Monday, according to hospital officials.

And in Gaza City, seven Palestinians were killed and dozens injured in two separate Israeli airstrikes overnight, Gaza Civil Defense spokesperson Mahmmoud Basal told CNN. An Israeli airstrike struck a two-story house belonging to the Tartouri family in the port area west of Gaza City, killing 5 Palestinians and wounding several others, Basal said.

In a separate attack, two people were killed and several others injured when an Israeli airstrike targeted a house belonging to the Hijazi family in the Sabra neighborhood in the center of Gaza City, according to Basal.

Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed 34,535 Palestinians and injured another 77,704 people, the Ministry of Health there reported on April 30. At least 72% of those killed are women and children, according to the ministry.

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CNN’s Amy Cassidy, Abeer Salman, Kareem Khadder, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Mostafa Salem, Kevin Liptak, MJ Lee, Ibrahim Dahman, Tamar Michaelis and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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