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People protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and call for the release of hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday. Alamy Stock Photo

Netanyahu faces internal pressure over fate of hostages in Gaza as mediators push truce deal

UNRWA said today that all 36 of its shelters in Rafah “are now empty”, after at least a million civilians have fled the city.


ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu is facing growing domestic pressure from both sides of the political spectrum over his government’s position on the ceasefire proposal announced by US President Joe Biden yesterday. 

On the streets of Tel Aviv last night, thousands turned out for anti-government protests calling for an end to the conflict in Gaza through a negotiated settlement with Hamas and the return of hostages. The movement has grown in recent months and consists of a wide cross section of Israeli society. 

The protesters were met by an aggressive police response. Two protesters were arrested as a bonfire was lit and mounted officers rode into the crowd in an attempt to disperse them.

As a family member of one of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza told The Journal this week, a majority of the Israeli public now sees a hostage release deal as the priority.

Gil Dickmann of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said the families’ demands are simple: “Bring all of the hostages home now.”

a-protester-stands-beside-a-bonfire-at-a-demonstration-against-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahus-government-as-protesters-call-for-the-release-of-hostages-held-in-the-gaza-strip-by-the-hamas Scenes from Tel Aviv last night. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Conversely, the extreme far-right ministers in Netanyahu’s fragile coalition government have threatened to resign if the prime minister agrees to the deal, which was already quietly approved by the Israeli War Cabinet prior to Biden’s announcement. 

Hamas has said they view the proposal “positively” but following Biden’s televised speech yesterday, Netanyahu publicly rejected the deal, doubling down on his stated war aim of completely destroying Hamas. 

“Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel”.

The Israeli siege, bombardment and invasion of Gaza following the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel in October has now killed at least 36,379 Palestinians, while 121 hostages remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel already rejected a ceasefire deal that Hamas had approved in early May, before launching its long-feared assault of the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

In a joint statement issued yesterday, Qatar, the United States and Egypt said that “as mediators in the ongoing discussions to secure a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages and detainees”, they “call on both Hamas and Israel to finalise the agreement embodying the principles outlined by President Joe Biden”.

The US president said Israel’s three-stage offer would begin with a six-week phase that would see Israeli forces withdraw from all populated areas of Gaza.

It would see the “release of a number of hostages” in exchange for “hundreds of Palestinian prisoners” held in Israeli jails.

Israel and the Palestinians would then negotiate for a lasting ceasefire, with the truce to continue so long as talks are ongoing, Biden said. Netanyahu took issue with this description of the deal, saying that the six-week period was finite. 

“It’s time for this war to end, for the day after to begin.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “strongly hopes” the latest development “will lead to an agreement by the parties for lasting peace”, a spokesman said.

Netanyahu has faced increasing domestic pressure over the fate of hostages and from a resurgent anti-government movement, with Israelis rallying again yesterday near military headquarters in Tel Aviv. 

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government “cannot ignore Biden’s important speech” and should accept the proposed deal, vowing to back Netanyahu if his far-right coalition partners quit over it.

“I remind Netanyahu that he has our safety net for a hostage deal,” Lapid said on the X platform, the former Twitter.

israeli-police-remove-a-person-protesting-against-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahus-government-as-demonstrators-call-for-the-release-of-hostages-held-in-the-gaza-strip-by-the-hamas-militant Scenes from Tel Aviv last night. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leaders of the two extreme-right parties in parliament, said they would leave the government if it endorses the truce proposal.

Ben Gvir said on X his party would “dissolve the government”, while Smotrich said: “We demand the continuation of the war until Hamas is destroyed and all hostages return.”

Smotrich added he opposes the return of displaced Gazans to the territory’s north and the “wholesale release of terrorists” in a prisoner swap.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz, a centrist politician, had threatened to resign unless Netanyahu approves a post-war plan for Gaza by 8 June.

Israel sent tanks and troops into Rafah in early May, ignoring concerns for displaced Palestinian civilians sheltering in the city on the Egyptian border.

may-31-2024-g-int-daily-life-in-gaza-may-31-2024-gaza-palestine-daily-life-of-palestinians-after-the-deadly-targets-of-the-displaced-people-tents-in-rafah-gaza-credit-hashem-zimmothe Scenes of destruction in Rafah, southern Gaza, Palestine. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Helicopter attacks in Gaza

Israeli Apache attack helicopters today opened fire on targets in central Rafah, a jet fired a missile at a house in the western Tel al-Sultan district and artillery shelling targeted the southern Brazil neighbourhood, witnesses said.

Elsewhere in Gaza, Israeli helicopters fired at targets in Gaza City’s Zeitun and Sabra areas, and an air strike hit a house in the city’s east, AFP reporters said.

Three people were killed including a woman and a child, when an air strike hit a family apartment in Gaza City’s Daraj neighbourhood, a hospital medic said.

Artillery shelling also targeted areas of Deir al-Balah and the Bureij and Nuseirat camps, witnesses said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said today that all 36 of its shelters in Rafah “are now empty”, after at least a million civilians have fled the city that until last month was sheltering 1.4 million people.

“The humanitarian space continues to shrink”, UNRWA said, adding that about 1.7 million people were now sheltering in southern Gaza’s main city of Khan Yunis and in central areas of the territory.

Yesterday, residents reported tank fire in the Tal al-Sultan neighbourhood in west Rafah, while witnesses in the east and centre described intense shelling.

Before the Rafah offensive began, the United Nations said up to 1.4 million people were sheltering in the city.

Since then, one million have fled the area, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said.

Rafah crossing dispute

Egyptian, Israeli and US officials meeting in Cairo Sunday “ended” their discussions on reopening Gaza’s Rafah crossing, state-linked Egyptian media said, without elaborating on the talks.

The Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, a vital conduit for aid into the besieged Gaza Strip where famine looms after nearly eight months of war, has been closed since Israeli forces seized its Palestinian side in early May.

Al-Qahera News, which is linked to Egyptian intelligence, quoted a senior official as saying that during Sunday’s meeting, “the Egyptian security delegation affirmed Israel’s full responsibility for humanitarian aid not entering the Gaza Strip.”

Cairo has refused to coordinate humanitarian assistance through the crossing since the Israeli takeover.

The official quoted by Al-Qahera said Egypt reiterated its demand that “Israel withdraw from the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing so it can resume operations”.

The report did not say whether the talks in Cairo had produced an agreement.

Includes reporting from © AFP 2024

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