‘Time is now’ for ceasefire: Blinken to Israeli leaders

Matthew Lee and Sam Mednick |

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is urging Israel and Hamas to back a truce.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is urging Israel and Hamas to back a truce.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting Israeli leaders in his push for a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, saying “the time is now” for an agreement that would free hostages and bring a suspension in the war in Gaza.

He has said Hamas would bear the blame for any failure to get a deal off the ground.

Blinken is on his seventh visit to the region since the war erupted in October in his bid to secure what has been an elusive deal between Israel and Hamas that could avert an Israeli incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltering.

The current round of talks appears to be serious, but the sides remain far apart on one key issue – whether the war should end as part of an emerging deal.

“We are determined to get a ceasefire that brings the hostages home and to get it now, and the only reason that that wouldn’t be achieved is because of Hamas,” Blinken told Israeli President Isaac Herzog at a meeting in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

“There is a proposal on the table, and, as we’ve said, no delays, no excuses.”

The deal would also allow much-needed food, medicine and water to get into Gaza, he said.

Antony Blinken speaks to demonstrators
Blinken spoke to demonstrators in Tel Aviv calling for the immediate release of Israeli hostages. (AP PHOTO)

After meeting Herzog and also families of Americans held by Hamas at his hotel, Blinken briefly greeted several dozen demonstrators calling for an immediate hostage release deal who had gathered outside.

Chanting “SOS, USA, only you can save the day” and “In Blinken we trust, bring them home to us”, the protesters urged him to make their case to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken met Netanyahu and his War Cabinet later on Wednesday but no details were immediately available.

Blinken told the families there is a very strong proposal on the table and that Hamas needs to say yes to it.

“That is our determination, and we will not rest, we will not stop until you’re reunited with your loved ones,” he said.

Blinken’s comments came on the last leg of his regional visit, with previous stops in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where he urged Hamas to accept the latest proposal, calling it “extraordinarily generous” on Israel’s part.

But the United States has also criticised Israel for its plan to invade Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city where some 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering from fighting elsewhere, saying that any major offensive there would bring potential harm to civilians and should be avoided.

The deal currently being discussed – with brokering by the US, Egypt and Qatar – would see the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for a six-week halt in fighting as part of an initial phase, according to an Egyptian official and Israeli media.

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would also be released, including some serving long sentences.

But a sticking point remains over what happens next.

Israeli forces near Rafah
Israel is planning to invade Rafah, the Gaza city where some 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering (EPA PHOTO)

Late on Tuesday, an Israeli air strike hit a house in central Rafah, killing at least two children, according to hospital authorities. The bodies were taken to the Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital.

On Wednesday, Israel’s military said it is operating in central Gaza, where it said jets struck militants, including one said to be setting up explosives.

The war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 raid into southern Israel in which militants killed around 1200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages.

Israel says the militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

The war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials.

It has driven around 80 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes, caused vast destruction in several towns and cities, and pushed northern Gaza to the brink of famine.