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Mediators urge Israel and Hamas to finalise Biden’s Gaza peace plan

GAZA conflict mediators urged Israel and Hamas to finalise a ceasefire and hostage release deal outlined by U.S. President Joe Biden that they said would bring immediate relief to people in Gaza and to the hostages and their families.

Israel has said there will be no formal end to the war as long as Hamas retains power, raising questions of timing and interpretation over the truce offer, which the Palestinian faction has provisionally welcomed.

Biden said on Friday that Israel had proposed a deal involving an initial six-week ceasefire with a partial Israeli military withdrawal and the release of some hostages while “a permanent end to hostilities” is negotiated through mediators.

The U.S., Egypt and Qatar have been seeking for months to mediate an end to the war, but a deal has proven elusive.

The proposal, Biden said, also “creates a better ‘day after’ in Gaza without Hamas in power”. He did not elaborate on how that might be achieved. The Iranian-backed Islamist group has given no indication it might step aside or disarm voluntarily.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Saturday any notion that Israel would agree a permanent ceasefire before “the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capabilities” was “a non-starter”.

Two members of his coalition also threatened to withdraw from the government if he went ahead with a deal that ended the war without destroying Hamas.

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Hamas said on Friday it was ready to engage “positively and in a constructive manner”. But senior official Mahmoud Mardawi told Qatari television it had not yet received details of the proposal.

“No agreement can be reached before the demand for the withdrawal of the occupation army and a ceasefire is met,” he said. Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction.

Israel has been willing only to suspend the war in exchange for hostages, saying it would resume the campaign to eliminate the Hamas threat. Hamas wants any deal to entail concrete Israeli moves to end the war, such as a full troop withdrawal.

A senior Biden administration official asked about a potential rift in the U.S. and Israeli viewpoints on the future of Hamas, and suggested this may be open to interpretation and would come down to future Egyptian and Qatari sway over the movement.

“I have no doubt that the deal will be characterised by Israel and be characterised by Hamas,” the official told reporters.

“And I think the arrangements and some of the day-after planning, you know, helps ensure that — that Hamas’s military capacity to regenerate in a way that can threaten Israel would be very much foreclosed under this arrangement and, I think the president said in his speech, ensuring that Hamas cannot rearm.”

MONTHS OF WAR

The war began on Oct. 7 when Hamas-led Palestinian fighters rampaged into southern Israel from Gaza, killing more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seizing more than 250 as hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

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Israel’s ground and air campaign in Gaza has left the territory in ruins, led to widespread starvation, and killed more than 36,000 people, according to Palestinian health authorities, who say most of the dead are civilians. More than 290 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the Gaza invasion.

An Israeli public once solidly behind the war is showing signs of fatigue amid worry for the fate of the hostages.

Benny Gantz, a centrist ex-general who joined Netanyahu in an emergency coalition, has threatened to bolt next week if the prime minister does not form a Gaza day-after plan with him.

But in a possible sign that that could be deferred, Gantz on Saturday voiced appreciation for Biden and called for the Israeli war cabinet to be convened “to decide the next steps”.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said he expected the war to continue for the rest of 2024, at least.

In the United States, Israel’s main ally, the extent of civilian suffering in Gaza has put pressure on Biden, who hopes to win a second presidential term in the November election.

In his speech on Friday, Biden called on Israel’s leadership to resist pressure from those in the country who wanted the war to go on “indefinitely”.

Netanyahu could have a chance to rebut in Washington soon. His office said he had accepted an invitation to address both houses of Congress by top lawmakers – which would make him the first foreign leader to make such an appearance four times.

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Netanyahu said he felt honoured and would use the opportunity to tell “the representatives of the American people and the entire world the truth about our righteous war against those who seek our destruction”.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid urged Netanyahu to agree on a hostages and ceasefire deal, saying his party would support it even if ultranationalist factions in the governing religious-rightist coalition rebelled. Lapid’s pledge meant a deal would likely pass in parliament.

“The government of Israel cannot ignore President Biden’s consequential speech. There is a deal on the table and it should be made,” Lapid said on social media.

By DAN WILLIAMS

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