US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said “a lot” of work remained to secure a deal on an extended truce in Israel’s war on Gaza and a captive-prisoner exchange after the Palestinian group Hamas responded to a truce proposal with its own plan.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we are very much focused on doing that work, and hopefully being able to resume releasing hostages that was interrupted,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday at the start of a meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
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The top United States diplomat earlier met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed a Hamas counterproposal to a truce plan drawn up by US and Israeli spy chiefs and delivered to the Palestinian group last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators.
Hamas laid out a detailed three-phase plan to unfold over four and a half months. The plan stipulates that all hostages would be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including senior fighters, and an end to the war.
Netanyahu appeared to reject the Hamas plan, promising Israel would continue its military assault on Gaza until “absolute victory”.
“We are on the way to an absolute victory,” the Israeli prime minister said, adding that the operation would last months, not years. “There is no other solution.”
Later on Wednesday, Blinken said he believed the Hamas response “creates space” for a deal.
“While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly,” Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv.
An Egyptian official told the news agency AFP that “a new round of negotiations” would start on Thursday in Cairo aimed at achieving “calm in the Gaza Strip”, now in its fifth month of war.
A Hamas source with knowledge of the matter said the Palestinian group had agreed to the talks, with the goal of “a ceasefire, an end to the war and a prisoner exchange deal”.
More than 27,580 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its assault on the territory on October 7 after Hamas carried out an attack on southern Israel.
At least 1,139 people were killed in the Hamas attack, according to an Al Jazeera tally based on official Israeli figures.
Israel has bombarded Gaza relentlessly and launched a ground invasion, reducing much of the territory to rubble and displacing more than 80 percent of the population.
Blinken has been conducting intense shuttle diplomacy, crisscrossing the Middle East on Tuesday in his fifth visit to the region since the war started, and meeting with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, countries mediating the hostage negotiations with Hamas.
There remain major gaps between the two sides: Israel has previously said it would not pull its troops out of Gaza or end the war until Hamas was wiped out.
A source close to the negotiations said the Hamas counterproposal did not require a guarantee of a permanent ceasefire at the outset, but that an end to the war would have to be agreed before final hostages were freed, the Reuters news agency reported.
Israeli government spokesperson Avi Hyman told reporters: “We have received an update, we have received notification from the Qatari negotiators. We are looking at them. The Mossad is looking intently at what was presented to us.”
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official in Beirut, said the group “submitted its comments in a way that ensures a complete and full end of aggression and
to allow aid and provide shelter to the displaced, to ensure reconstruction and lift the blockade against Gaza and to go into a prisoner swap.”
During the first 45-day phase, according to the offer document seen by Reuters, all Israeli women hostages, males under 19 years old and the elderly and ill would be freed, in exchange for Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. Israel would withdraw troops from Gaza’s populated areas.
Implementation of the second phase would not begin until the sides conclude “indirect talks over the requirements needed to end the mutual military operations and return to complete calm”.
The second phase would include the release of remaining male hostages and full Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza. The remains of the dead would be exchanged during the third phase.
Ensuring more humanitarian aid reaches Gaza and is distributed to those in need also depends on an end to the fighting, officials say.
For now, the war rages on unabated in Gaza, where the health ministry said on Wednesday that at least 123 people were killed in the previous 24 hours.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that if Israel presses into Gaza’s far-southern Rafah, it “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences”.
UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that it’s critical to secure an agreement to provide aid to Gaza as soon as possible.
“There is the need to deliver aid to the Palestinians, which is critical and it’s not happening,” Albanese said.