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A Gaza cease-fire deal hangs in the balance, as Israel begins striking eastern Rafah

Makeshift tents for displaced Palestinians at a temporary camp in Rafah, southern Gaza, on May 3.
Ahmad
/
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Makeshift tents for displaced Palestinians at a temporary camp in Rafah, southern Gaza, on May 3.

Updated May 06, 2024 at 16:15 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — A Gaza cease-fire deal is hanging in the balance, as Israel began striking targets in eastern Rafah, hours after Hamas said it had accepted a proposal from Egypt and Qatar.

Israel's government said the proposal failed to meet its requirements and said it's pushing ahead with a military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where earlier Monday it had ordered the evacuation of tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians.

"The War Cabinet unanimously decided this evening Israel will continue its operation in Rafah, in order to apply military pressure on Hamas so as to advance the release of our hostages and achieve the other objectives of the war," said a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

Egyptian officials close to the talks with Hamas told NPR that the Palestinian movement agreed to a draft that was modified over the weekend. The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations. An Israeli delegation did not attend the talks in Egypt.

The Israeli prime minister's office said, "While the Hamas proposal is far from meeting Israel's core demands, Israel will dispatch a ranking delegation to Egypt in an effort to maximize the possibility of reaching an agreement on terms acceptable to Israel."

The Israeli government said Monday it would send a delegation to negotiate "an agreement under conditions acceptable to Israel."

News that Hamas accepted a cease-fire proposal — on the eve of the Gaza war's seven-month mark — briefly raised hopes for some that the fighting may come to a pause.

On hearing the news, Israeli relatives of some of the 132 hostages remaining in Gaza rallied in central Tel Aviv. A group that represents some of the families, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, issued a statement saying Hamas' announcement "must pave the way for the return" of their loved ones.

"Now is the time for all that are involved, to fulfill their commitment and turn this opportunity into a deal for the return of all the hostages," it said in a statement sent to reporters.

Meanwhile in Gaza, car horns erupted in the southern city of Rafah as people celebrated news of the cease-fire proposal.

The Egyptian officials told NPR the proposal included three phases: The first would entail the release of a small number of hostages taken from Israel on Oct. 7, in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting. That would be followed by a second six-week truce. A third phase would include U.S. guarantees of an end to the war.

John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, largely declined comment on the cease-fire proposal. "We're currently reviewing that response and we're discussing it with our partners in the region," Kirby said of the proposal Hamas agreed to, noting CIA Director Bill Burns was working on the issue in the region.

Arabic-language news outlets later published what they said was the full text of the three-phased deal.

Throughout the negotiations, Hamas has insisted on a permanent cease-fire, the eventual withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, the return of Palestinians to their homes in the territory's north, where Israel controls access, and the release of a large number of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons, including some serving life sentences.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country must retain the right to continue the war and that a permanent cease-fire and Israeli troop withdrawal would leave Hamas, which led the deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, intact.

Earlier Monday, the Israeli military sent out text and voice messages ordering the evacuation of some parts of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza that borders with Egypt. The Israeli military posted maps on social media with arrows instructing people where to go.

Hamas says there are around a quarter-million people are in the area where evacuations were ordered — some of the more than 1 million Palestinians who have sought refuge in the city from fighting elsewhere in the territory.

People in Rafah were told to leave for an "expanded humanitarian area" in al-Mawasi and Khan Younis, areas north and northwest of the city.

Thousands of displaced families inside a United Nations-run school in the area told to evacuate were busy collecting their things Monday morning and unable to find any car or buggy to take them out of this part of Rafah.

"We don't know where to go," said a young woman, Tasneem Ishta, heading out of Rafah to the area of al-Mawasi. "Our pots, pans, utensils, pillows, clothes, food, drink — everything is in this home."

When asked how she feels, she answered: "I am very scared."

For months, Israel has been threatening an assault in Rafah, where it says Hamas' last remaining battalions are. The United States and United Nations have warned against it.

The White House said President Biden reiterated his position on Rafah in a call Monday with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The president has said Israel must have a plan in place to ensure civilians' safety.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.
Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of Europe for NPR News. She moved to London in spring 2023 after five years in Mumbai, covering South Asia.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.