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Israel-Hamas ceasefire faces an uncertain future as Rafah offensive looms


Israel has begun striking targets in Rafah in southern Gaza as a tenuous cease-fire deal faces an uncertain future. The Israeli strikes come just hours after Hamas put out a statement saying it agrees to a proposal to halt the seven-month war with Israel. Well, for more, let's bring in Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. Welcome back.

PAUL SALEM: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with the so-called cease-fire - in a few sentences, do we know what Hamas has agreed to?

SALEM: Well, we know what Hamas has declared that it's agreed to, and it said that it agreed to a three-part process. One would be a short cease-fire and a limited exchange of prisoners. But that would then be followed over phases by a more permanent cease-fire, a withdrawal of Israeli forces and a return of displaced Palestinians and the beginning of reconstruction. Israel immediately responded that that is not what was on the table, so...

KELLY: Right. They...

SALEM: ... (Inaudible) if we have an agreement.

KELLY: Yeah. And it takes two to tango or two to cease fire in this case. The Israeli cabinet just today put out a statement saying this proposal that Hamas says it signed up to falls short. But sounds like all is not lost - an Israeli delegation is still going to join negotiators tomorrow?

SALEM: That is the case. That is what Israel did announce. Israel has also said that its military operations, according to it, is part of also a pressure campaign to put pressure on Hamas for Hamas to agree to the terms that Israel has on the table. So war and negotiation seem to be proceeding at the same time.

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask how we should interpret that Israel is stepping up strikes on Rafah tonight just hours after Hamas says yes to a cease-fire proposal.

SALEM: Well, I think it also reflects the bind that Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself in. There are members of his cabinet who say if you sign a cease-fire agreement, we're out. And there are others in his cabinet who are saying you should prioritize the release of prisoners and not the attack on Rafah. He's trying to hold his cabinet together. And by maybe continuing to negotiate and pursuing war, he hopes to hang on for a few more days or weeks.

KELLY: So are these stepped up strikes on Rafah - is this the start of the big offensive that Israel has been promising to carry out - I'll note over the loud objections from the U.S. and others?

SALEM: It seems to be the case. Obviously, the Netanyahu government has said that it wants to proceed with this operation despite U.S. and regional and international opposition to that. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that his time to achieve this is limited. I fear that indeed this might be a fast-tracking of that operation. You recall that a couple of days ago, Israel asked - or warned civilians to get out of the way. And as operations have just started, they didn't even allow time for that almost impossible task to be accomplished.

KELLY: I mean, there's just been a head-spinning number of developments from the Middle East today. Is your read that between the strikes on Rafah and Hamas agreeing to this something resembling a cease-fire proposal, are we closer or farther away from an end to the war as the day ends in the Middle East than when it began?

SALEM: Well, I think we're not closer in terms of days, but what I fear is that the Israeli government, which had - they've been consistent in the last weeks that they will proceed with this operation on Rafah. It is possible that after the operation of Rafah, then they might be serious about ending the war, whether through this agreement or another one. They might be able to declare victory and then proceed to a post-war situation. But as the U.S. has warned, and others in the region and Palestinians as well, this operation in Rafah will come at the cost of perhaps thousands if - we fear tens of thousands more lives lost.

KELLY: Just a few seconds left, but in a few words, what's the top thing you're watching for to see where things go next?

SALEM: I'm watching to see CIA Director Bill Burns - he's in the region - see if he can pull a peace rabbit out of the hat.

KELLY: Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute here in Washington, good to speak with you.

SALEM: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.