Apr 26, 2024 - World

Israel warns Egypt: "Last chance" for hostage deal before Rafah invasion

Palestinians living in makeshift tents continue their daily lives as the number of tents in the city has increased significantly in recent days due to Israeli army prepares to launch a ground invasion into Rafah city in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on April 26, 2024.

Palestinians in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on Apr. 26, 2024. Palestinians are leaving Rafah for Deir al-Balah as the Israeli army prepares to launch a ground invasion into Rafah. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israeli officials told their Egyptian counterparts on Friday that Israel is ready to give hostage negotiations "one last chance" to reach a deal with Hamas, but if there isn't progress soon it will move forward with a ground invasion of Rafah, two senior Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: The Egyptians are increasingly concerned about a possible Israeli military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and are making a last minute push for a hostage deal that would lead to a ceasefire in Gaza and stop an invasion of Rafah. 

  • Egyptian officials have raised concerns that an Israeli operation in the city would lead to tens of thousands of Palestinians entering their territory, potentially involving a breach of the border that would endanger Egypt's security.
  • Israel has for weeks said it would invade Rafah, where more than one million displaced Palestinian are estimated to be sheltering amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Driving the news: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff Gen. Herzi Halevi and the director of the Shin Bet security agency Ronen Bar visited Cairo earlier this week for talks on the Rafah operation and the hostage deal, Axios reported.

  • During the talks in Cairo, the Egyptians presented new ideas for how to reach a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas, according to Israeli officials and Egyptian press reports.
  • A delegation of Egyptian intelligence officials visited Israel on Friday and conducted talks with representatives of the Shin Bet, IDF and Mossad about the hostage deal and the Rafah operation, Israeli officials said.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli officials said the talks with the Egyptians on Friday were constructive and that the Egyptians made it clear they intend to put pressure on Hamas to secure a deal for the release of hostages.

  • The Egyptians also expressed that they understand the sense of urgency regarding the Rafah operation, the two Israeli officials said.
  • "Israel told Egypt that it is serious about preparations for the operation in Rafah and that it will not let Hamas drag its feet," one Israeli official said.
  • The Israeli message was that there is a clear deadline for invading Rafah and Israel will not agree to "another round of pointless talks for the purpose of fraud," the Israeli official said.

The other side: Hamas chief negotiator Khalil al-Haia told al-Jazeera on Thursday that the group still wants to reach a deal through Egyptian and Qatari mediation but said Israel is creating obstacles in the talks.

State of play: The hostage talks between Israel and Hamas have been at a deadlock for a few weeks with significant gaps between the parties.

  • In recent days, the Israeli war cabinet decided to change its position regarding the number of hostages Israel demands that Hamas releases as part of a deal.
  • The proposal that was on the table involved the release of 40 hostages in return for six weeks of ceasefire and the release of roughly 900 Palestinian prisoners.
  • The 40 hostages included women, female soldiers, men over the age of 50 and male hostages in poor medical condition who would be released on humanitarian grounds.
  • But Hamas claimed in recent weeks there are only about 20 hostages that fit this humanitarian criteria.
  • Israeli officials said the Israeli war cabinet authorized the Israeli negotiations team for the first time this week to discuss the release of less than 40 hostages.

What to watch: Israeli officials say there are 33 hostages in the humanitarian category and all need to be released.

  • "This is part of what the negotiations are going to focus now. The number of days of the ceasefire will be linked to the number of hostages who will be released. If Hamas does want a humanitarian deal, Israel will not be the obstacle," the Israeli official said.
  • The official said Israel was willing to be flexible on parameters of the hostage deal and gave the Egyptian mediators the green light to move forward.
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