TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to meet Israeli leaders on Wednesday as Hamas put forward a detailed plan for a new cease-fire and hostage release deal, but both sides remain dug in on thus far elusive goals as the war enters its fifth month.
Hamas laid out a three-phase plan to unfold over 4 1/2 months, responding to a proposal drawn up by the United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt. All hostages would be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including senior militants, and an end to the war.
The proposal would effectively leave Hamas in power in Gaza and allow it to rebuild its military capabilities, a scenario that Israeli leaders have adamantly rejected. President Joe Biden said Hamas’ demands are “a little over the top” but that negotiations will continue.
The deadliest round of fighting in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has killed over 27,000 Palestinians, leveled entire neighborhoods, driven the vast majority of Gaza’s population from their homes, and pushed a quarter of the population to starvation.
Iran-backed militant groups across the region have conducted attacks, mostly on U.S. and Israeli targets, in solidarity with the Palestinians, drawing reprisals as the risk of a wider conflict grows.
Israel remains deeply shaken by Hamas’ Oct 7 attack, in which militants burst through the country’s vaunted defenses and rampaged across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting some 250, around half of whom remain in captivity in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war will continue until “total victory” over Hamas and the return of all the remaining hostages.
Blinken, who is on his fifth visit to the region since the war broke out, is trying to advance the cease-fire talks while pushing for a larger postwar settlement in which Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel in return for a “clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
But the increasingly unpopular Netanyahu is opposed to Palestinian statehood, and his hawkish governing coalition could collapse if he is seen as making too many concessions.
Misery Deepens In Devastated Gaza
There is little talk of grand diplomatic bargains in Gaza, where Palestinians yearn for an end to fighting that has upended every aspect of their lives.
“We pray to God that it stops,” said Ghazi Abu Issa, who fled his home and sought shelter in the central town of Deir al-Balah. “There is no water, electricity, food or bathrooms.” Those living in tents have been drenched by winter rains and flooding. “We have been humiliated,” he said.
The Palestinian death toll from four months of war has reached 27,585, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count but says most of the dead have been women and children.
Israel has ordered Palestinians to evacuate areas that make up two-thirds of the tiny coastal territory. Most of the displaced are packed into the southern town of Rafah near the border with Egypt, where many are living in squalid tent camps and overflowing U.N.-run shelters.
Hamas has continued to put up stiff resistance across the territory, and its police force has returned to the streets in places where Israeli troops have pulled back. Hamas is still holding over 130 hostages, but around 30 of them are believed to be dead, with the vast majority killed on Oct. 7.
Hamas Spells Out Demands For Hostage Deal
Hamas’ response to the cease-fire proposal was published in Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to the powerful Hezbollah militant group. A Hamas official and two Egyptian officials confirmed its authenticity, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media on the sensitive negotiations.
In the first 45-day phase, Hamas would release all remaining women and children, as well as older and sick men, in exchange for Palestinian women, children, older and sick prisoners held by Israel. Israel would release an additional 1,500 prisoners, including 500 specified by Hamas — likely senior militants serving life sentences.
Israel would also withdraw from populated areas, cease aerial operations, allow far more aid to enter and permit Palestinians to return to their homes, including in devastated northern Gaza.
The second phase, to be negotiated during the first, would include the release of all remaining hostages, mostly soldiers, in exchange for more Palestinian prisoners, and Israel would complete its withdrawal from Gaza. In the third phase, the sides would exchange the remains of hostages and prisoners.
Israelis Agonize Over Fate Of Captives
Israelis are intensely focused on the plight of the hostages, with family members and the wider public demanding a deal with Hamas, fearful that time is running out. Israeli forces have only rescued one hostage, while Hamas says several were killed in Israeli airstrikes and failed rescue missions.
More than 100 hostages, mostly women and children, were freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
Thousands of Israelis have taken part in weekly protests calling for the release of the hostages and demanding new elections. But Netanyahu is beholden to far-right coalition allies who have threatened to bring down the government if he concedes too much in the negotiations.
That could spell the end of Netanyahu’s long political career and expose him to prosecution over long-standing corruption allegations.
But the longer the war continues, the greater risk it spills over into other countries, drawing the U.S. and its allies even deeper into a volatile region.
Israel and Hezbollah have been locked in a low-intensity conflict along the border since the start of the war in Gaza.
Iran-backed groups in Syria and Iraq have launched dozens of attacks against bases housing U.S. troops and killed three American soldiers last week, drawing a wave of retaliatory airstrikes. The U.S. and Britain have also carried out strikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in response to their attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea and disruption of global trade.
The Houthis, who portray their attacks as a blockade of Israel but have targeted ships with no known connection to the country, attacked two more ships early Tuesday.
Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip and Magdy from Cairo. Associated Press writer Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war