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Hostage Families Call For Biden-Backed Cease-Fire Deal

TEL AVIV, Israel — Families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas called for all parties to immediately accept a proposal detailed by U.S. President Joe Biden to end the nearly 8-month-long war and bring their relatives home, but Israel’s government said conditions for a cease-fire still must be met.

Biden outlined a three-phase deal Friday proposed by Israel to Hamas, saying the militant group is “no longer capable” of carrying out another large-scale attack on Israel. He urged the Israelis and Hamas to come to an agreement to release some 100 remaining hostages, along with the bodies of around 30 more, for an extended cease-fire in Gaza.

Cease-fire talks ground to a halt last month after a major push by the U.S. and other mediators to secure a deal in hopes of averting a full Israeli invasion of Gaza’s southern city of Rafah. Israel says the Rafah operation is vital to uprooting Hamas fighters responsible for the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the war.

Israel on Friday confirmed its troops were operating in central parts of the city. The ground assault has led to an exodus of around 1 million Palestinians out of the city and has thrown U.N. humanitarian operations based in the area into turmoil.

Following Biden’s speech, hostage families said Saturday time was running out with the onus on both Israel and Hamas to accept the deal.

“We want to see people coming back from Gaza alive and soon,” Gili Roman told The Associated Press. His sister, Yarden Roman-Gat, was taken hostage and freed during a weeklong ceasefire in November, but Yarden’s sister-in-law, Carmel, is still being held.

“This might be the last chance to save lives. Therefore, the current state must be changed and we expect all to adhere to Biden’s call for accepting the deal on the table, immediately. There is no other way towards a better situation for all. Our leadership must not disappoint us. But mostly, all eyes should be on Hamas,” he said.

The proposal came after what hostage families said was an aggressive meeting Thursday with Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, who told them that the government wasn’t ready to sign a deal to bring all of the hostages home and that there was no plan B.

Hanegbi said this week he expects the war to drag on for another seven months, in order to destroy the military and governing capabilities of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group.

Netanyahu has promised a “total victory” that would remove Hamas from power, dismantle its military structure and return the hostages, and on Saturday, the government said its conditions for ending the war had not changed. Putting a permanent cease-fire in place before the conditions are fulfilled is a “non-starter,” it said.

Many hostage families blame the government’s lack of will to secure a deal for the deaths of many of the hostages in captivity.

“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. Our hearts are broken by the amount of people we will receive that are no longer alive,” Sharone Lifschitz, told AP. Her mother Yocheved was freed in the November cease-fire, and her father Oded is still in captivity.

The first phase of the deal announced by Biden would 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, the elderly 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 Israeli forces would withdraw from Gaza. The third phase calls for the start of a major reconstruction of Gaza, which faces decades of rebuilding from devastation caused by the war.

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

Hamas said in a statement Friday it viewed the proposal presented by Biden “positively” and called on the Israelis to declare 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.

While the proposal is similar to previous ones, the main difference is the readiness to stop the war for an undefined period, according to analysts. It still leaves Israel the option the 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.

Still, experts say Biden’s speech was one of the first times in the war that provided hope that it might end and bring the hostages home.

“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. Israelis must take to the streets to demand that the government of Israel accept it, he said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called it an “urgent hope” for lasting peace. She said Saturday it was up to Hamas to show they want to end the conflict.

Meanwhile fighting continued in Gaza.

On Saturday, Israel’s army said it killed a Hamas fighter responsible for directing attacks in Israel and the West Bank and earlier this week, it said its aircraft killed a Hamas fighter in central Gaza who was head of the technology department for its internal security forces.

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 for talks about the Rafah crossing, which has been closed since Israel took over the Palestinian side of it in early May. The meeting comes a week after Biden discussed the closure of the crossing in a call with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

The crossing is one of the main ways for aid to enter Gaza. Egypt has refused to open its side of the border, fearing the Israeli hold will remain permanent. Egypt has demanded that Palestinians be put back in charge of the facility. The White House has been pressing Egypt to resume the flow of trucks.

Israel launched its war in Gaza after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in which militants stormed into southern Israel, killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducted about 250. More than 36,170 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s campaign of bombardment and offensives, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Its count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.