President Joe Biden pushed for a new cease-fire deal Friday that included a hostage exchange and an end to Israeli hostilities in Gaza, and he criticized some Israeli leaders who he said wanted to “keep fighting for years.”

The president’s remarks seemingly left the door open for Hamas to remain the governing authority in Gaza — a sticking point for Israel, which has rejected cease-fire deals that didn’t include destroying the group or removing it from power. Hamas has said it would not take part in negotiations amid Israeli military operations, though it said Thursday that it was “prepared to reach a comprehensive agreement” that included an end to the war.

On Friday, Israeli officials confirmed that the country’s military forces were on the ground in central Rafah, a southern city that had previously become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing Israel Defense Forces advancing in the north. Biden had previously said an invasion into Rafah would mark a red line that, if crossed, would lead the United States to stop supplying weapons to Israel, but he made no mention of such a line on Friday.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have died in the war since Oct. 7, when militants from the Gaza Strip surged into Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking hundreds of hostages. The toll of Israel’s retaliatory military operation became even clearer Sunday when an Israeli strike killed dozens of Palestinians seeking refuge in a tent camp in Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called that strike a “mistake,” but other Israeli strikes have since killed dozens more Palestinians at tent camps near a field hospital and a United Nations facility, underscoring the ongoing danger to Palestinians no matter where in the Gaza Strip they flee to.

Biden on Friday referred to “terrible images” of the aftermath of Sunday’s strike in Rafah but repeated Israel’s claim that it had targeted Hamas. He also acknowledged that “thousands of children” had been killed in Gaza.

The deal Biden outlined was similar to ones proposed in the past, in which hostages held in Gaza and Palestinians jailed in Israel would have been released. Aside from a brief period in November that included such an exchange, however, negotiators have not agreed on terms for any pause or end in the fighting.

The president introduced the plan by saying Israel had offered it but later said he had “urged the leadership in Israel to stand behind this deal.”

The deal Biden outlined Friday included a six-week temporary cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli troops from populated areas of Gaza, which would in turn become a full withdrawal of Israeli forces and “the cessation of hostilities permanently” if the deal continued according to plan.

In exchange, he said, captives in Gaza, including Americans, would be swapped for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. At first, that swap would include “women, the elderly and the wounded, in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.” Eventually, he said, the swap would include male Israeli soldiers and the remains of hostages who had died. A “surge” in humanitarian aid would begin “immediately” if the deal was agreed to, Biden said, and Palestinians would be able to “return to their homes” throughout the Gaza Strip.

“There are a number of details to negotiate” between the first and second phases of the deal, Biden acknowledged, before saying that the cease-fire would continue as long as negotiations were ongoing. The third and final phase of the deal would include “a major reconstruction plan” for Gaza and the final return of any remains of hostages.

Hamas’ Future Is Vague Under The Deal

Biden said near the start of his short remarks that one of the principles guiding America’s role in the cease-fire negotiations was creating “a better day-after in Gaza without Hamas in power.”

However, he did not say that the deal he outlined would require Hamas to step down from power.

“At this point, Hamas no longer is capable of carrying out another Oct. 7, which is one of the Israelis’ main objectives in this war, and quite frankly a righteous one,” Biden said, after describing Hamas forces as “devastated” by Israel. He said a future “rebuilding of Gaza” would be done “in a manner that does not allow Hamas to re-arm.”

He said separately that “Israel will always have the right to defend itself against the threats to its security and to bring those responsible for Oct. 7 to justice. And the United States will always ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself. If Hamas fails to fulfill its commitments under the deal, Israel can resume military operations, but Egypt and Qatar have assured me, and they are continuing to work to ensure, Hamas does not do that.”

In fact, Hamas’ status in Gaza — not simply its ability to carry out another massive ground attack against Israel, as happened on Oct. 7 — has been a major sticking point in past attempts to negotiate a cease-fire.

Earlier this month, reports indicated that Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire deal involving a hostage swap and the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza but that Israel had rejected the deal because it allowed the continued existence of Hamas. Netanyahu said at the time, “Israel will not allow Hamas to restore its regime of evil in the strip. Israel will not allow it to rebuild its military capabilities.” Netanyahu previously said, “The day after is the day after Hamas. All of Hamas.”

Notably, after Biden’s speech, an English-language statement from Netanyahu’s office reiterated Israel’s demand for Hamas’ “governing capabilities” to be destroyed along with its military capabilities ― a demand that Biden had not laid out in his own remarks.

“The Government of Israel is united in its desire to return the hostages as soon as possible and is working to achieve this goal,” the statement said. “The Prime Minister authorized the negotiating team to present a proposal to that end, which would also enable Israel to continue the war until all its objectives are achieved, including the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities.The actual proposal put forward by Israel, including the conditional transition from one phase to the next, allows Israel to uphold these principles.”

Hamas said in a statement that it viewed Biden’s speech “positively” and would work toward “any proposal based on a permanent ceasefire, complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, reconstruction, the return of the displaced to all their places of residence, and the completion of a serious prisoner exchange deal if the occupation declares its explicit commitment to that,” according to Axios’ Barak Ravid.

Biden Criticizes Hard-Line Israelis

The president also criticized hard-line Israelis in his remarks, saying they were pushing for “years” of fighting.

“I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan and will call for the war to continue indefinitely,” Biden said. “Some are even in the government coalition. And they’ve made it clear they want to occupy Gaza, they want to keep fighting for years, and the hostages are not a priority to them.”

“Well, I’ve urged leadership in Israel to stand behind this deal, despite whatever pressure comes,” he said. “We can’t lose this moment. Indefinite war in pursuit of an unidentified notion of ‘total victory’ will only bog down Israel in Gaza, drain the economic, military and human resources, and further Israel’s isolation in the world.”

For the long term, Biden said, Israel’s acceptance of the deal would lead to “a potential historic normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia” ― a priority for the Biden administration, HuffPost has reported.

Later in the speech, Biden referenced Hamas’ calls for a cease-fire and said, “This deal is an opportunity to prove whether they really mean it.” He separately addressed “everyone who wants peace now,” urging them to pressure leaders to accept the deal.

Still, he made no mention of conditions on American support — politically, monetarily or via military supplies — if Israel continued its military operations in Gaza.

source

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