Hamas accepts Gaza truce proposal as Israel urges Rafah evacuation

Israeli forces close a road in Tulkarem during a raid on the occupied West Bank city. Picture: Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

Israeli forces close a road in Tulkarem during a raid on the occupied West Bank city. Picture: Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

Published May 6, 2024


Hamas on Monday said it had accepted a proposal for a truce in the seven-month-old war in Gaza, after Israel told Palestinians in Rafah to evacuate ahead of a long-threatened invasion of the city.

The Hamas announcement brought cheering crowds onto the street amid tears of happiness, chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is greatest") and celebratory shooting in the air.

There was no immediate official response from Israel, and its close ally the United States said it was "reviewing" Hamas's response.

Hamas in a statement said that its leader Ismail Haniyeh had informed mediators Qatar and Egypt "of Hamas's approval of their proposal regarding a ceasefire agreement".

A senior Hamas official said Israel must now decide whether it accepts or "obstructs" a truce in the Palestinian territory after seven months of war.

"The ball is now in the court of Israeli occupation, whether it will agree to the ceasefire agreement or obstruct it," the official told AFP, requesting anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

Earlier Monday, Israel called on Palestinians to leave eastern Rafah, amid increasing global alarm about the consequences of an Israeli ground invasion of the southern Gaza city bordering Egypt.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, condemned the order and said it would be "impossible to carry out safely".

The evacuation call followed disagreement between Israel and Hamas over the Palestinian militant group's demands to end the war, during weekend negotiations in Cairo.

Egyptian state-linked media said the talks stalled after a rocket attack claimed by Hamas's armed wing killed four Israeli soldiers on Sunday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to send ground troops into Rafah regardless of any truce, defying international concerns.

'Thousands' leaving

Cairo's foreign ministry warned in a statement of "grave humanitarian risks" for more than one million Gazans sheltering there and urged Israel to "exercise the utmost restraint".

US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu spoke and Biden restated "his clear position" on Rafah, the White House said.

It also said the Israeli premier "agreed to ensure the Kerem Shalom crossing is open for humanitarian assistance for those in need".

Israel closed the border crossing Sunday after four soldiers were killed there by rockets fired from the Rafah area.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk in a statement called Israel's evacuation order on Monday "inhumane" and "contrary to the basic principles of international humanitarian and human rights laws".

Gaza's bloodiest-ever war began following Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel estimates that 128 of the 250 hostages abducted by militants on October 7 remain in Gaza, including 35 whom the military says are dead.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has conducted a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,735 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

About 1.2 million people are sheltering in Rafah, the World Health Organization says.

Hamas said Israel was planning a large-scale offensive "without regard for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe" in the besieged Gaza Strip or for the fate of hostages held there.

Israel said its "limited" and temporary evacuation order aimed "to get people out of harm's way".

Gazan civil defence and aid officials said Israeli jets on Monday struck areas of Rafah including Al-Shuka and Al-Salam, both of which had been told to evacuate.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said "thousands" of Gazans were leaving eastern Rafah.

'Where can we go?'

Israel's military in a statement urged eastern Rafah residents to head for the "expanded humanitarian area" at Al-Mawasi on the coast.

But aid groups said the Israeli-designated safe zone was not ready for such an influx.

"The area is already overstretched and devoid of vital services", said Norwegian Refugee Council director Jan Egeland.

Asked how many people should move, an Israeli military spokesman said: "The estimate is around 100,000 people."

The Red Crescent said the designated evacuation zone hosts around 250,000 people, many of them already uprooted from elsewhere.

Palestinian man Abdul Rahman Abu Jazar, 36, said the area "does not have enough room for us to make tents" because it is already full.

"Where we can go?" he asked.

On Monday EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called the evacuation orders "unacceptable" and urged Israel to "renounce" a ground offensive.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi posted on X: "Another massacre of the Palestinians is in the making... All must act now to prevent it."

UNICEF warned that around 600,000 children packed into Rafah face "further catastrophe".

The main aid group in Gaza, UNRWA, said an Israeli Rafah offensive would mean "more civilian suffering and deaths", and said it was "not evacuating".

'Back on track'

Soon after the war started, Israel told Palestinians in northern Gaza to move south to "safe zones" –- including Rafah.

But Rafah has been repeatedly bombed and Palestinians say nowhere in Gaza is safe.

Emergency workers said air strikes killed 16 people in Rafah on Sunday, hours after Hamas rockets killed the Israeli soldiers.

The strike led Israeli authorities to close the crossing.

Al-Qahera News, linked to Egyptian intelligence services, cited a high-level source on Monday as saying the rocket attack "caused truce negotiations to bog down".

Despite Israel's evacuation order and before Hamas said it accepted a truce proposal, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif al-Qanou told AFP the movement "will continue the negotiations positively".

CIA director Bill Burns, a mediator in the talks, was expected in Doha to meet Qatar's premier for "emergency" discussions, a source with knowledge of the truce talks told AFP.

The source, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the meeting would try "to see if the talks can be brought back on track".

A Hamas official close to the negotiations said Sunday the group's negotiators were returning to Doha for "consultations", after weekend talks -- with no Israeli delegation present -- failed to produce a breakthrough.

Qatar-based Haniyeh accused Netanyahu of sabotaging the talks, which Netanyahu's office on Monday called "an absolute lie".

Agence France-Presse