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Blinken in Israel to push Gaza cease-fire plan

The U.S. secretary of state is looking to press Hamas and Israel to agree on a deal, but Israeli political fractures and silence from Hamas don't offer promising prospects.

TEL AVIV, Israel (AFP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Israel on Monday to promote a Gaza truce and hostage release plan as Israeli bombardment again rocked the Palestinian territory. 

After a stop in Egypt to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Blinken arrived in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Israeli politics and silence from Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, at war with Israel for eight months, raised questions as to whether Blinken can succeed.

It is the eighth visit to the region by Washington's top diplomat since the war began on Oct. 7 with Hamas' unprecedented attack on Israel.

Netanyahu has been politically buoyed in Israel by a rescue mission that succeeded in freeing four hostages on Saturday but was deadly and destructive for Palestinians.

A day later, though, Netanyahu received his first major political blow of the conflict when Benny Gantz and a second member of his war cabinet quit.

Gantz, a former army chief, criticized Netanyahu especially for failing to outline a post-war governance plan for Gaza, and said the prime minister "is preventing us" from a "real victory."

The centrist politician also challenged Netanyahu to set a date for elections, a demand shared by a protest movement that has regularly and noisily taken to Israel's streets against the right-wing government.

Blinken was also expected to meet Gantz during his visit, a senior United States official said.

Witnesses in north and central Gaza reported helicopter gunfire and naval shelling hitting Gaza City, and air strikes on Deir al-Balah during the latest fighting.

Street battles raged in the southern areas of Rafah and Khan Younis, where bodies were seen lying in the streets and Palestinian civilians were fleeing, an AFP correspondent said.

Lying among the dead

Outside the European Hospital in Khan Younis, a grief-stricken man lay down among white-shrouded bodies to hug one of them after they were loaded onto a truck. Other men had to pull him from the body bag.

The latest clashes follow major combat and heavy airstrikes during Saturday's hostage rescue mission in the Nuseirat camp.

While Israelis celebrated the return of the four captives in good physical health, Palestinians condemned a death toll that health officials in the Hamas-ruled territory said left 274 people killed and almost 700 injured, many of them women and children.

In the aftermath of the battle, Palestinians searched for survivors and bodies in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Charred cars and debris littered a devastated neighborhood coated in concrete dust.

Hamas' attack which began the bloodiest ever Gaza war resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized 251 hostages, more than 100 of whom were released during a November truce. After Saturday's rescue mission, 116 hostages remain in Gaza, although the army says 41 of them are dead.

Israel's retaliatory military offensive has killed at least 37,124 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to Gaza's health ministry.

The toll includes at least 40 deaths over the past 24 hours, the ministry said on Monday.

The war has brought widespread devastation to Gaza and displaced most of its 2.4 million inhabitants, many of whom United Nations agencies warn are on the brink of starvation.

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The long war and siege, the spiraling Palestinian death toll and the utter devastation of vast swaths of Gaza have heaped global pressure on Israel to stop the conflict.

Despite months of shuttle diplomacy, mediators have failed to broker a new truce since the weeklong cease-fire in November that, along with the freeing of hostages, saw Palestinians released from Israeli detention.

U.S. President Joe Biden made a renewed push to halt the fighting when he presented what he called an Israeli truce proposal on May 31 and urged Hamas to agree to it.

Before presenting the proposal, Biden had suspended a shipment of weapons to Israel and accused Netanyahu of prolonging the war to stay in power, an assertion on which he then backtracked.

Talks resumed soon after between U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators, but without achieving a breakthrough so far.

Hamas officials have insisted that any agreement must guarantee a permanent end to the war — a demand Israel has firmly rejected, vowing to destroy Hamas and free the remaining captives.

Washington has laid out the latest proposal in a draft resolution before the U.N. Security Council, where it has previously blocked a number of cease-fire resolutions.

A first phase would see an "immediate, full and complete cease-fire," the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and the "withdrawal of Israeli forces from the populated areas in Gaza."

This would also allow the "safe and effective distribution of humanitarian assistance at scale throughout the Gaza Strip to all Palestinian civilians who need it," according to the draft text seen by AFP.

Diplomatic sources said a vote was planned for Monday but this had not yet been confirmed.

Jordan, Qatar

Blinken was expected to promote the plan on his latest wartime crisis tour of the region, with stops also planned in Jordan and Qatar.

During closed-door talks in Cairo also attended by Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, Sisi and Blinken discussed "joint efforts to reach a cease-fire and hostage-prisoner exchange" deal, according to a statement from the Egyptian presidency.

The two leaders had also been expected to discuss plans to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, a main conduit for aid into the territory.

The Rafah crossing has been closed for a month since Israeli troops seized its Palestinian side during their operations against Hamas.

The closure has worsened the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, sending prices of scarce goods skyrocketing and worsening fears of famine.

Blinken told reporters in Cairo that his message to regional governments was that "if you want a cease-fire, press Hamas to say yes" to the proposal.

By SHAUN TANDON Agence France-Presse

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