During a visit to Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken showed his determination to achieve a rapid ceasefire in the Gaza war and the release of more hostages from the Islamist Hamas. Blinken met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday. The US Secretary of State had previously met with President Izchak Herzog in Tel Aviv. He said that the release of the hostages was currently the “top priority.”

Blinken’s talks were also about significantly increasing humanitarian aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip and improving the catastrophic situation after almost seven months of war. Israel’s army announced on Wednesday that the Erez border crossing had been opened to the import of humanitarian aid for the first time since the start of the Gaza war. 30 trucks with food and medical supplies from Jordan drove via Erez to the north of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s war cabinet announced the opening of the crossing at the beginning of April following pressure from the United States.

Aid supplies arriving by ship at the port of Ashdod will now be transported directly to the nearby Erez border crossing, Israel’s Defense Minister Galant said on Wednesday evening, after he and Blinken visited the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, which in turn lies on the border with the southern part of the coastal strip. had visited. The north of the contested area is particularly affected by food shortages.

Blink: No more delays and no more excuses

“We are seeing clear and demonstrable progress in bringing more aid to Gaza, but more needs to be done,” Blinken said the day before in Jordan. On Wednesday evening he visited the port of Ashdod in southern Israel, which has recently also been used to process aid supplies.

Blinken said in Tel Aviv: “We are committed to achieving a ceasefire that brings the hostages home, now. And the only reason that could not be achieved is because of Hamas.” There is a proposal on the table. “And like we said, no delays, no excuses.” At the same time, one must also focus on the people of Gaza, “who are suffering in the crossfire that Hamas has caused.”

In Tel Aviv, Blinken also spoke to relatives of hostages who demonstrated in front of a hotel for the release of their family members. “Bringing your loved ones home is at the heart of everything we do, and we will not rest until everyone – man, woman, soldier, civilian, young, old – is back home,” Blinken told them. “So please stay strong, keep the faith. We will be with you every single day until we get this done.”

Eagerly waiting for Hamas’ response

Blinken had spoken of a “very, very generous” proposal from Israel for a deal with Hamas. As part of mediation efforts in Cairo, a response from Hamas is now being awaited. Israel has announced a rapid start to the controversial offensive in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt if an agreement is not reached.

Israel is ready to send a delegation to Cairo for indirect negotiations in the coming days, the Wall Street Journal quoted Israeli and Egyptian officials as saying. The latest proposal is seen as a “last chance” in Jerusalem. “Time is of the essence, but I cannot set a deadline here,” US National Security Council Communications Director John Kirby said on Tuesday.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, citing Egyptian officials, the proposed agreement includes two stages. The first stage would involve the release of at least 20 hostages within a three-week ceasefire in exchange for an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners. The duration of the ceasefire could be extended by one day for each additional hostage, it said. A second stage would include a 10-week ceasefire in which Hamas and Israel could agree to a larger release of hostages and a longer pause in fighting that could last up to a year. However, Hamas has so far insisted on a complete end to the war, which Israel rejects. Both sides are not negotiating directly, but through mediators Egypt, Qatar and the USA.

“Israel has shown more than just flexibility to reach an agreement,” the Times of Israel quoted an Israeli official as saying. The number of hostages to be released by Hamas has been reduced as a first step. In addition, the Israeli side is open to the possibility that the Palestinians who fled the fighting in the south of the sealed-off Gaza Strip return to the north without Israeli security checks, it said. One of the options currently being examined is for Egypt to take over the security controls. Blinken had previously visited Saudi Arabia in addition to Jordan as part of his multi-day trip.

UN Secretary General: Without a deal there is a risk of escalation

“In the interest of the people of Gaza, in the interest of the hostages and their families in Israel, and in the interest of the region and the world, I strongly encourage the government of Israel and the Hamas leadership to reach an agreement now,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York on Tuesday. Without agreement, the war “with all its consequences could get exponentially worse, especially in the Gaza Strip and in the entire region.” An Israeli attack on Rafah would be “an intolerable escalation,” the UN chief said.

Netanyahu: Rafah offensive continues with or without hostage deal

However, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear that the announced offensive on Rafah would take place in any case. “We will go into Rafah and destroy the Hamas battalions there – with or without a deal,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday at a meeting with relatives of Israeli hostages and fallen soldiers, according to his office. “The idea that we will stop the war before all of its goals have been achieved is out of the question.”

Netanyahu is under strong pressure from his right-wing extremist coalition partners, who had threatened to end the government if the now proposed hostage deal was implemented and the announced military operation in Rafah was stopped. Netanyahu’s political survival depends on them.

Minister Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party caused outrage on Wednesday when she said that Israel’s war aims should not be sacrificed for the return of a small number of hostages. Strock spoke of a “terrible deal” that also endangered the hostages who were not part of it. The war aims could not be “thrown in the trash in order to save 22 or 33 people.”