Tuesday, July 23, 2024

U.S. sees promising ‘breakthrough’ in Israel-Hamas cease-fire talks, officials say

A “breakthrough” has been made in efforts to negotiate a framework agreement for a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas that might bring an end to months of fighting in Gaza and see hostages released, according to a senior Biden administration official.

“We’ve had a breakthrough on a critical impasse,” the official said in a press briefing call Thursday, attributing the development to a shift in Hamas’ stance on a framework deal, which they said was now “fully consistent” with the U.S.-drafted agreement passed by the United Nations Security Council last month.

“Now we’re on to the implementation steps,” they said.

If a deal is reached, it would bring nearly nine months of fighting in Gaza, where local health officials said more than 38,000 people have been killed, according to local health officials, to an end. It would also see hostages — taken captive during Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks in which some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others were kidnapped, according to Israeli officials — released.

A cease-fire agreement could also potentially curb tensions at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon as Israeli forces continue to trade fire with Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah. The fighting there has sparked growing fears of a broader conflict.

President Joe Biden spoke earlier Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a call that lasted about 30 minutes to discuss the details of the deal, the senior administration official said during the briefing.

The two world leaders walked through the draft agreement in the call and discussed outstanding issues, most of which the senior official said related specifically to the “implementation of the agreement.”

The official said a response from Hamas received days ago through Qatari mediators allowed the process to move forward, with the militant group making a significant adjustment in their stance on the deal.

Asked what changed, a senior administration official told NBC News after the call that Israel’s military operations in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza that had previously been designated a safe zone, over the past several weeks had put fresh pressure on Hamas.

Negotiations are now likely to take place in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in coming days, with a U.S. team already in place to help hammer out the details that have yet to be agreed upon, a senior administration official told NBC News after the briefing.

The first phase of the deal would see an end to fighting and relief for civilians in Gaza in conjunction with the release of a number of hostages who remain held by Hamas, including all women, men over the age of 50 and those who are sick and injured.

Among those expected to be released would be Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was taken hostage from the Supernova, or Nova, music festival. Polin suffered severe injuries in Hamas’ attack, during which he lost part of his arm, a senior administration official told NBC News after the call.

Keith Siegel, the husband of Aviva Siegel, who was released by Hamas during a landmark deal in November that saw dozens of hostages released, would also be freed, they said.

Biden and Netanyahu also discussed aspects of the second phase of the deal, which would be expected to bring about a permanent ceasefire and the release of all remaining living hostages and Israeli soldiers held in Gaza, journalists were told in the briefing call.

“The conversation was detailed, going through the text of the agreement, constructive, and we think encouraging,” the senior administration official said.

The official said Biden was expecting to discuss the latest developments on progress toward a deal with European partners during next week’s NATO Summit.

As negotiations continue between Israel and Hamas, talks were also underway to try and de-escalate tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, a senior administration official told NBC News.

They said Israel was under significant pressure to strike a de-escalation deal amid mounting attacks from the Lebanese militant group.

But in Thursday’s briefing, a senior administration official emphasized that any deal between Israel and Hamas was “not done until everything’s done.”

“This is a, no pun intended, this is a big deal. And in every respect. And so we want to get it right,” the official said. “It’ll be tough and difficult, no question, but we’re going to do everything we can to close this out.”

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