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CIA Director Burns visits Cairo as Gaza ceasefire and hostage negotiations continue

<i>(Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>CIA Director Bill Burns
(Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/AP via CNN Newsource
CIA Director Bill Burns

By Kevin Liptak, Alex Marquardt, MJ Lee and Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) — CIA Director Bill Burns is in Cairo amid intensive negotiations over a ceasefire and hostage deal in the Israel-Hamas war, a person familiar with the matter says.

Burns has acted as a key interlocutor for the United States in the multiparty talks between Israel, Hamas, Egypt and Qatar over a release of hostages held in Gaza that would be paired with a temporary ceasefire.

Hamas is currently weighing 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 earlier this week.

Burns has been dispatched during previous rounds of talks as they reached intensive stages, only to see them later collapse. American officials are hopeful a new proposal will be accepted by Hamas but acknowledge the group’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, will need to sign off.

On Thursday, the White House said it had not yet received a response from Hamas on the proposal. Communication with Sinwar, believed to be inside Gaza, has at times been difficult.

American officials have been pressing Hamas to accept the terms of the deal, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described this week as “very generous.”

In a statement released on its Telegram channel on Friday, Hamas said it would send a delegation to Cairo on Saturday with a “positive spirit” to continue discussions on the proposal.

It said it was “determined to finalize the agreement to meet our people’s demands.” However it does not appear, at least from what is in the statement, that Hamas is offering any significant changes to its demands.

American officials view the latest proposal as the best opportunity to bring the violence in Gaza to an end and hope a pause in the fighting could provide diplomatic space for a more sustained ceasefire.

Some of Biden’s aides also hope a hostage deal resulting in a temporary ceasefire could lower the temperature on American college campuses, where protesters have been voicing anger toward Israel and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

If a deal isn’t struck, Israel appears poised to launch a ground invasion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have been sheltering. Even with a deal in place, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel could still enter Rafah as it looks to eliminate the threat from Hamas.

Such a scenario could aggravate tensions with Washington. Biden administration officials are opposed to Netanyahu’s Rafah plan and say they haven’t seen a complete strategy for protecting the civilians there.

Despite domestic and international pressure to agree to a hostage-ceasefire deal, a vocal part of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition have pressured the prime minister not to agree to the ceasefire proposal currently on the table. They have urged Israel’s military to continue into Rafah, prioritizing the destruction of Hamas over the return of Israeli hostages.

Rafah plans

Israeli officials briefed Biden administration officials in recent days about their latest thinking on how to evacuate civilians from Rafah, according to two sources familiar with those conversations.

What was shared did not resemble a final plan and only focused on the movement of civilians out of Rafah, including the question of how to feed and house those affected – and not on the details of a military operation, those sources said. US officials saw this engagement as part of the continuing conversations between US and Israeli officials on a potential future Rafah operation, including two virtual meetings in recent weeks.

The latest information that was shared was not enough to allow the administration to determine whether Israel has an executable and acceptable Rafah plan, one of the two sources added.

US officials currently assess that a limited number of tents are currently being constructed in southern Gaza for the purpose of temporarily sheltering civilians who would be moved out of Rafah in the case of an Israel Defense Forces military incursion, according to a senior administration official.

However, this official stressed that the tents that are being built are nowhere close to what would be needed to house the more than a million people that would seek shelter.

“[There is] no sign that they are imminently able to, willing or ready to go into Rafah,” the official said of Israeli forces. “Certainly they’re not prepared for the care and the feeding and the sustenance of a million and a half people.”

Israel has been communicating with aid organizations about their plans if an operation takes place though.

The Israeli government briefed humanitarian aid organizations in recent days about their plans for evacuating civilians from Rafah, according to a source familiar with the matter. The government warned that a Rafah operation was coming but did not provide any sort of timeline and didn’t suggest it was imminent.

The government told the aid groups that the Rafah crossing would be entirely closed, but that Kerem Shalom would hopefully remain open. It also told the groups they hoped that the pipeline of aid coming from Egypt could be redirected to enter Gaza via Kerem Shalom. Israel told the aid groups they plan to direct civilians using evacuation notices to an expanded zone of al-Mawasi, according to the source. A map – seen by CNN – was given to the groups, highlighting the potential safe zone.

The source told CNN that it is not typical for the Israeli government to brief aid groups collectively, as they did this week.

There are few indications that al-Mawasi has the infrastructure – housing, food, water, sanitation – to sustain the 1.3 million people that are currently in Rafah.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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