Hamas accepts cease-fire proposal for Gaza, but Israel’s stance still uncertain

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hamas announced Monday it has accepted an Egyptian-Qatari cease-fire proposal, but there was no immediate word from Israel, leaving it uncertain whether a deal had been sealed to bring a halt to the seven-month-long war in Gaza.

It was the first glimmer of hope that a deal might avert further bloodshed. Hours earlier, Israel ordered some 100,000 Palestinians to begin evacuating the southern Gaza town of Rafah, signaling that an attack was imminent. The United States and other key allies of Israel oppose an offensive on Rafah, where around 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, are sheltering.

An official familiar with Israeli thinking said Israeli officials were examining the proposal, but the plan approved by Hamas was not the framework Israel proposed.

An American official also said the U.S. was still waiting to learn more about the Hamas position and whether it reflected an agreement to what had already been signed off on by Israel and international negotiators or something else. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as a stance was still being formulated.

Details of the proposal have not been released. Touring the region last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had pressed Hamas to take the deal, and Egyptian officials said it called for a cease-fire of multiple stages starting with a limited hostage release and some Israeli troop pullbacks from Gaza. The two sides would also negotiate a “permanent calm” that would lead to a full hostage release and greater Israeli withdrawal, they said.

Hamas had been seeking changes in the language to guarantee its key demand of an end to the war and complete Israeli withdrawal in return for the release of all its hostages, according to Egyptian officials. It was not immediately known if any changes were made.

Palestinians in Rafah erupted in cheers after the Hamas announcement, hoping it meant the invasion would be averted — though that remained unclear.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have repeatedly rejected a trade-off for an end to the war in return for the hostages’ release, vowing to keep up their campaign until Hamas is destroyed.

Netanyahu said Monday that seizing Rafah, which Israel says is the last significant Hamas stronghold in Gaza, was vital to ensuring the militants can’t rebuild their military capabilities and repeat the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war.

The United States has repeatedly said that Israel shouldn’t attack the town, President Joe Biden spoke Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reiterated U.S. concerns about an invasion of Rafah. Biden said a cease-fire with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, according to a National Security Council spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the call before an official White House statement was released.

The looming operation has raised global alarm. Aid agencies have warned that an offensive will worsen Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe and bring a surge of more civilian deaths in an Israeli campaign that in nearly seven months has killed 34,000 people and devastated the territory.

Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, an Israeli army spokesman, said about 100,000 people were being ordered to move from parts of Rafah to a nearby Israel-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi, a makeshift camp on the coast. He said that Israel has expanded the size of the zone and that it included tents, food, water and field hospitals.

It wasn’t immediately clear, however, if that material was already in place to accommodate the new arrivals.

Around 450,000 displaced Palestinians already are sheltering in Muwasi. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said it has been providing them with aid. But conditions are squalid, with few bathrooms or sanitation facilities in the largely rural area, forcing families to dig private latrines.

After the evacuation order announcement Monday, Palestinians in Rafah wrestled with having to uproot their extended families once again for an unknown fate, exhausted after months living in sprawling tent camps or crammed into schools or other shelters in and around the city. Few who spoke to The Associated Press wanted to risk staying.

Mohammed Jindiyah said that at the beginning of the war, he had tried to hold out in his home in northern Gaza after Israel ordered an evacuation there in October. He ended up suffering through heavy bombardment before fleeing to Rafah.

He’s complying with the order this time, but was unsure now whether to move to Muwasi or another town in central Gaza.

“We are 12 families, and we don’t know where to go. There is no safe area in Gaza,” he said.

Sahar Abu Nahel, who fled to Rafah with 20 family members including her children and grandchildren, wiped tears from her cheeks, despairing at a new move.

“I have no money or anything. I am seriously tired, as are the children,” she said. “Maybe it’s more honorable for us to die. We are being humiliated.”

Israeli military leaflets were dropped with maps detailing a number of eastern neighborhoods of Rafah to evacuate, warning that an attack was imminent and anyone who stays “puts themselves and their family members in danger.” Text messages and radio broadcasts repeated the message.

UNRWA won’t evacuate from Rafah so it can continue to provide aid to those who stay behind, said Scott Anderson, the agency’s director in Gaza.

“We will provide aid to people wherever they choose to be,” he told the AP.

The U.N. says an attack on Rafah could disrupt the distribution of aid keeping Palestinians alive across Gaza. The Rafah crossing into Egypt, a main entry point for aid to Gaza, lies in the evacuation zone. The crossing remained open Monday after the Israeli order.

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, condemned the “forced, unlawful” evacuation order and the idea that people should go to Muwasi.

“The area is already overstretched and devoid of vital services,” Egeland said. He said that an Israeli assault could lead to “the deadliest phase of this war.”

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensives in Gaza have killed more than 34,700 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them children and women, according to Gaza health officials. The tally doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants. More than 80% of the population of 2.3 million have been driven from their homes, and hundreds of thousands in the north are on the brink of famine, according to the U.N.

Tensions escalated Sunday when Hamas fired rockets at Israeli troops positioned on the border with Gaza near Israel’s main crossing for delivering humanitarian aid, killing four soldiers. Israel shuttered the crossing — but Shoshani said it wouldn’t affect how much aid enters Gaza as others are working.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes on Rafah killed 22 people, including children and two infants, according to a hospital.

The war was sparked by the unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which Hamas and other militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. After exchanges during a November cease-fire, Hamas is believed to still hold about 100 Israelis captive as well the bodies of around 30 others.

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