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Blinken Heads Home Without Israeli-Hamas Cease-Fire or Hostage Release


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards his plane at an airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 8, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards his plane at an airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 8, 2024.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to Washington from the Middle East on Thursday with no new deal in hand for a cease-fire in the four-month Israel-Hamas war in Gaza or release of any more hostages held by the militants.

Blinken and other U.S. officials said they remained optimistic a halt in the fighting can be achieved and 100 or so remaining hostages freed. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided a Hamas plan that would leave the militants in control of the Gaza Strip as “delusional” and said Israeli forces would fight to win “absolute victory.”

Meanwhile, the White House announced that President Joe Biden would host Jordan's King Abdullah II in Washington on Monday for talks on resolving the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Blinken wrapped up a four-nation Mideast trip by meeting with Netanyahu’s war cabinet, including former military chiefs Benny Gantz and Gabi Eisenkot. The top U.S. diplomat said he would focus on “the hostages and the strong desire that we both have to see them returned to their families, the work that's being done to that end.”

But late Wednesday, Blinken acknowledged sharp differences between a cease-fire plan offered by Israel, the U.S., Qatar and Egypt that would last several weeks and free hostages and Hamas’ response calling for an Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza, an end to its bombardment of Gaza and the right for Hamas to govern the territory and rebuild its military capability.

"Clearly there are things that Hamas sent back that are absolute non-starters," Blinken said at a news conference. "But, at the same time, we see space to continue to pursue an agreement.”

"And these things are always negotiations,” he said. “It's not flipping a light switch. It's not 'yes' or 'no.' There's invariably back and forth."

A senior Hamas official said a Hamas delegation was in Cairo on Thursday to continue negotiations with Egyptian and Qatari officials.

The United States has been Israel’s staunchest ally in its fight against Hamas following the militants’ shock October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. But Netanyahu was dismissive of Blinken’s assessment that the Hamas’ plan could at least serve as a starting point for cease-fire discussions.

“We are on the way to an absolute victory. There is no other solution,” Netanyahu said at a news conference after meeting with Blinken. He said Israel’s war effort would take months, not years.

The Israeli leader also appeared to dismiss concerns from the U.S. and others about expanding Israel's military operations in southern Gaza, particularly in Rafah on the Egyptian border, where more than a million Palestinians have fled at Israel’s demand to escape fighting further to the north.

Blinken said, "On all of my previous visits here and pretty much every day in between, we have pressed Israel in concrete ways to strengthen civilian protection, to get more assistance to those who need it. And over the past four months, Israel has taken important steps to do just that," he said. "And yet … the daily toll that its military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high."

In rejecting the Hamas cease-fire plan, Netanyahu also called for the dismantlement of the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians, the main distributor of international humanitarian assistance in Gaza, after allegations that a dozen of its employees took part in the Hamas October attack.

Blinken appealed to Netanyahu and other Israelis not to let vengeance dictate their continued response.

"Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7," he said. "And the hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others."

Palestinian women mourn over the wrapped body of a relative killed in overnight Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip at Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah on Feb. 8, 2024.
Palestinian women mourn over the wrapped body of a relative killed in overnight Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip at Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah on Feb. 8, 2024.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry says Israel’s counter-offensive has killed more than 27,500 people and displaced about 2 million Palestinians in Gaza from their homes.

In its proposal, Hamas called for three 45-day phases, first releasing all remaining women and children, as well as older and sick men, in exchange for an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The Hamas plan calls for Israel to withdraw from populated areas and end its aerial bombardment while also allowing far more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and permitting 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 all Palestinian detainees over the age of 50, including senior militants, to be freed by Israel.

Israel would release an additional 1,500 prisoners, 500 of whom would be specified by Hamas, and complete its withdrawal from Gaza.

In the third phase, the sides would exchange the remains of hostages and prisoners. Israel says it believes more than two dozen of the remaining 130 or so hostages in Gaza have already died or been killed.

Blinken’s trip to the Mideast was his fifth since the war started.

He has reiterated the U.S, stance that creation of a Palestinian state is the best way to ensure lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and greater integration for the region. According to the State Department, Blinken also emphasized the urgent need to lower tensions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and prevent the conflict from expanding.

Critics have attacked Netanyahu for having no definitive plan for governing Gaza after the war ends.

He said Wednesday, "The day after is the day after Hamas. All of Hamas."

Netanyahu has rejected any arrangement that would leave Hamas in full or partial control of Gaza. He also said Israel is the “only power” capable of guaranteeing security in the long term.

Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.