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Israel describes a permanent cease-fire in Gaza as a ‘nonstarter’

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s prime minister on Saturday called a permanent cease-fire in Gaza a “nonstarter” until long-standing conditions for ending the war are met, appearing to undermine a proposal that President Joe Biden had announced as an Israeli one.

The statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office came a day after Biden outlined the plan, and as families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists called for all parties to immediately accept the proposal. A major demonstration in Israel on Saturday night urged the government to act now.

And a joint statement by mediators the U.S., Egypt and Qatar pressed Israel and Hamas, saying the proposed deal “offers a road map for a permanent cease-fire and ending the crisis” and gives immediate relief to both the hostages and Gaza residents.

But Netanyahu’s statement said that “Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel. Under the proposal, Israel will continue to insist these conditions are met before a permanent cease-fire is put in place.”

In a separate statement, Netanyahu accepted an invitation from U.S. congressional leaders to deliver an address at the Capitol, a show of wartime support for Israel. No date has been set.

Biden on Friday asserted that Hamas is “no longer capable” of carrying out a large-scale attack on Israel like the one by the terrorist group in October that started the war. He urged Israel and Hamas to reach an agreement to release about 100 remaining hostages, along with the bodies of around 30 more, for an extended cease-fire.

Cease-fire talks halted last month after a push by the U.S. and other mediators to secure a deal in hopes of averting a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza’s southern city of Rafah. Israel says the Rafah operation is key to uprooting Hamas terrorists responsible for the Oct. 7 attack.

Israel on Friday confirmed its troops were operating in central parts of the city. The ground assault has led around 1 million Palestinians to leave Rafah.

Families of hostages said that time was running out.

“This might be the last chance to save lives,” Gili Roman told The Associated Press. His sister, Yarden Roman-Gat, was freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November, but sister-in-law Carmel is still held. “Our leadership must not disappoint us. But mostly, all eyes should be on Hamas,” Roman said.

Families described an aggressive meeting Thursday with Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, who told them the government wasn’t ready to sign a deal to bring all hostages home and there was no plan B.

Hanegbi said this week he expects the war to continue another seven months to destroy Hamas’ military and governing capabilities.

Many hostages’ families accuse the government of a lack of will.

“We know that the government of Israel has done an awful lot to delay reaching a deal, and that has cost the lives of many people who survived in captivity for weeks and weeks and months and months,” Sharone Lifschitz said. Her mother, Yocheved, was freed in November but her father, Oded, is still held.

The first phase of the deal proposed by Biden would last for six weeks and include a “full and complete cease-fire,” a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all densely populated areas of Gaza and the release of a number of hostages, including women, older people and the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The second phase would include the release of all remaining living hostages, including male soldiers, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The third phase calls for the start of a major reconstruction of Gaza, which faces decades of rebuilding from the war’s devastation.

Biden acknowledged that keeping the proposal on track would be difficult, with “details to negotiate” to move from the first phase to the second. Biden said if Hamas fails to fulfil its commitment under the deal, Israel can resume military operations.

Hamas has said it viewed the proposal “positively” and called on Israel to declare an explicit commitment to an agreement that includes a permanent cease-fire, a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a prisoner exchange and other conditions.

The main difference from previous proposals is the readiness to stop the war for an undefined period, according to analysts. It leaves Israel the option to renew the war and diminish Hamas’ ability to govern, but over time, said Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum in Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

“It was a very good speech … it seems that Biden is trying to force it on the Israeli government. He was clearly speaking directly to the Israeli people,” said Gershon Baskin, director for the Middle East at the International Communities Organization.

Also on Saturday, Egypt’s state-run Al-Qahera News said officials from Egypt, the United States and Israel would meet in Cairo over the weekend about the Rafah crossing, which has been closed since Israel took over the Palestinian side in May.

The crossing is a main way for aid to enter Gaza. Egypt has refused to open its side, fearing the Israeli control will remain permanent. Egypt wants Palestinians to be in charge again.

The Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 killed around 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducted about 250. More than 36,370 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s campaign of bombardment and offensives, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. Its count doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants.

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