Israeli leaders to discuss Hamas response to ceasefire proposal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Biden on Thursday that he would send a new team of negotiators to talks on a Gaza ceasefire, his office and the White House said, but reiterated that Israel would end the war “only after it has achieved its goals.”

Ceasefire negotiations based on a proposal put forward by the Biden administration and backed by the United Nations stalled in June. Israel’s stated objectives include destroying Hamas’ military and administrative power in the Gaza Strip and ensuring that it never again poses a threat to the Palestinian enclave – both goals that could still be some time away from being achieved, if at all.

In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said the call “informed President Biden of his decision to send a delegation to continue negotiations for the release of the hostages and reiterated the principles to which Israel is committed, in particular its commitment to ending the war only after all goals have been achieved.”

In a later statement, the White House said Biden “welcomed the prime minister’s decision to authorize negotiators to work with U.S., Qatari and Egyptian intermediaries to reach an agreement,” but did not address Israel’s reservations.

The efforts to restart talks came amid rising tensions along Israel’s northern border. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah launched an unusually large rocket and drone attack on Israel on Wednesday in retaliation for Israel’s killing of a Hezbollah commander, and carried out a larger attack on Thursday. A barrage of rockets killed an Israeli reserve officer and sparked wildfires along Israel’s northern border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which includes members who oppose the ceasefire agreement, met on Thursday to discuss a new ceasefire proposal and Hamas’ response to the hostage release.

Regional mediators, primarily Qatar and Egypt, have been trying to restart dormant talks between Israel and Hamas, who are not in direct contact, on a ceasefire in Gaza after nearly nine months of war. The Biden administration hopes that a ceasefire in Gaza will also allow Israel and Hezbollah, which has continued to bombard Israel in solidarity with Hamas, to reach a diplomatic solution.

The talks are based on a three-phase framework agreement announced by President Biden in late May and endorsed by the UN Security Council. Last week, Qatari mediators sent Hamas an amended draft agreement aimed at bridging the gap between the two sides. Hamas had demanded stronger guarantees to limit the possibility that Israel would abandon the agreement and return to fighting before the second phase of the agreement, a permanent ceasefire, is reached.

Hamas said on Wednesday it had “exchanged several views” with the mediators about the ceasefire deal and was “positively engaged” in ongoing talks on the issue. It also submitted a formal response that was eventually sent to Israel for consideration, the Israeli government said.

An Israeli official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday night that there remains a large divide between the two sides but that a Hamas response could still move the talks forward. The official gave no further details.

Israel and Hamas, along with Qatar, Egypt and the United States, have been in indirect talks for months about a possible ceasefire and the release, dead or alive, of the 120 hostages still being held in Gaza, but deep differences remain on key issues and the talks have been largely stalled since June.

The main obstacles relate to fundamental disputes: Hamas wants guarantees that a deal will lead to an end to the war and a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops, while Israel has vowed to keep fighting until Hamas is destroyed and also wants security control over Gaza after the war.

In Israel, some key members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition have voiced opposition to a potential deal with Hamas.

“Now is not the time to stop. Quite the opposite. It’s time to send in more troops and increase military pressure,” the country’s far-right Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said on Tuesday. “It would be foolish to stop just short of success, of a complete victory over Hamas.”

Hezbollah launched its largest attack on northern Israel since the start of the Gaza war on Thursday, sending air raid sirens ringing across the region for more than an hour and sending thousands of people fleeing to fortified shelters. The Israeli military said it fired around 200 rockets and mortars and 20 drones into northern Israel.

Since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, the politically powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has repeatedly attacked northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas, prompting Israel to attack Lebanon. More than 150,000 people remain displaced on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border with little idea of ​​when they will be able to return home.

More than 80 Lebanese civilians and 11 Israeli civilians have been killed in fighting since October, according to UN and Israeli government figures. Hezbollah said more than 300 of its fighters were killed, while the Israeli government said at least 17 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Hezbollah said Thursday’s barrage was also in retaliation for Israel’s assassination the previous day of a senior Hezbollah military commander in Lebanon’s southern province of Tyre, but Hezbollah’s artillery shells were fired mainly at the border area, avoiding a broader attack on Israeli centres, which would have likely drawn harsher retaliation.

“A series of counterattacks is ongoing and will continue, targeting installations the enemy never believed they would be attacked,” Hezbollah leader Hashem Safieddine said in a televised address. “This front is burning, it’s powerful and it’s only getting stronger.”

Hezbollah has said its forces will not stop their attacks until Israel ends its military operations in Gaza. At the same time, Israeli officials have issued increasingly belligerent threats about possibly invading Lebanon to drive Hezbollah from the border.

Thomas Fuller Contributed report.

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