White House — As Israeli forces push deeper into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, President Joe Biden is pushing for a three-phase cease-fire deal agreed upon by Israel that begins with a six-week temporary pause in fighting and leads to a more permanent cessation of hostilities with Hamas.

The first phase would include a “full and complete cease-fire,” Biden said in remarks at the White House on Friday. That would mean the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza and the release of some hostages, including women, the elderly, the wounded and American citizens, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. 

In addition, Israel would allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza and the return of Palestinian citizens to their homes and neighborhoods in all areas of Gaza, including in the north. 

After the initial six-week pause, the path forward would be more complicated, Biden warned. 

“I’ll be honest with you, there are a number of things to be negotiated to move from phase one to phase two,” he said. 

The president said that as long as negotiations continue, however, the cease-fire would hold even if talks dragged out past the initial six weeks, vowing that mediators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar would continue until all the agreements are reached. 

Phase two would see the release of all remaining hostages held by Hamas, including male Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces will withdraw from Gaza, and as long as Hamas lives up to its commitments, Biden said, the Israelis have agreed to the cessation of hostilities “permanently.” 

In the third and final phase, a “major reconstruction plan for Gaza would commence, and any final remains of hostages who’ve been killed will be returned to their families,” he said. 

“The people of Israel should know they can make this offer without any further risk to their own security, because they’ve devastated Hamas forces over the past eight months,” the president said. 

Negotiations to halt the fighting have been deadlocked for weeks, with each side blaming the other. 

On Thursday, Hamas said it had informed mediators that they are “prepared to reach a comprehensive agreement” that includes a full hostage and prisoner exchange deal if Israel stops its war in Gaza.  

“Hamas and the Palestinian factions will not accept to be part of this policy by continuing [cease-fire] negotiations in light of the aggression, siege, starvation and genocide of our people,” the Hamas statement read. 

“Today, we informed the mediators of our clear position that if the occupation stops its war and aggression against our people in Gaza, our readiness [is] to reach a complete agreement that includes a comprehensive exchange deal.” 

Biden on Friday urged Hamas to take the deal. “We can’t lose this moment,” he said. 

Rafah operation 

Despite U.S. warnings against a full-scale offensive and an order by the top United Nations court for Israel to halt its assault on Rafah, the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, is moving farther into the southern Gaza city. 

With the operation in central Rafah, the IDF is widening its invasion in the city after earlier this week seizing control of the Philadelphi Corridor, a strategic territory along Gaza’s border with Egypt. The IDF says the capture is meant to cut off tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle weapons and other goods, despite a years-long blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. 

Israel’s Rafah offensive has drastically cut off the flow of humanitarian aid, causing widespread hunger among the population. According to estimates by the United Nations, close to a million people have left the city, most of whom had been displaced earlier in the war. 

Biden is under growing international calls to pressure its close ally to allow more humanitarian aid in and to halt operations that have caused a high toll of civilian deaths.

The calls have grown louder since Israel’s airstrike on Sunday killed at least 45 people in a nearby makeshift tent encampment designated as a safe zone.  

“Palestinian people have endured sheer hell in this war,” Biden said of the strike. 

Following the strike, diplomats at the United Nations Security Council are backing a new resolution this week that would demand an immediate cease-fire and a halt to Israel’s military operations in Rafah. The resolution was drafted by Algeria, the only Arab representative in the current makeup of the Security Council. The U.S has signaled it would not support the resolution in its current form.

Independent media investigations showed remnants of the munitions used in the strike, a GBU-39, an American-made 113 kg bomb with a net explosive payload of 17 kg that is intended to be more targeted and accurate. 

“The GBU-39 small diameter bomb is created to be precise, created to be low collateral damage, but there’s still both a science and an art to employing these munitions,” said Wes Bryant, a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations targeting professional. 

“You can’t just drop a precision low collateral damage weapon in an area saturated with civilians and expect no civilian casualties,” he told VOA. 

Israel called the strike a “tragic accident” and has promised an investigation. But horrifying images of charred bodies and people including children burned alive has renewed global outrage and added more pressure on Biden to make good on his threat to suspend U.S. delivery of offensive weapons to Israel if it went into “population centers” in Rafah without credible protections for civilians. 

Administration officials said Israeli strikes on Rafah have not crossed Biden’s red line, which they defined as a “major ground operations” in Rafah. In a briefing earlier this week, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the use of GBU-39 would be “indicative of an effort to be discreet and targeted and precise,” by the Israelis. 

Many in Biden’s own party have been outraged at what they see as his misguided support for Israel. In a recent speech to the People’s Conference for Palestine in downtown Detroit, Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib slammed Biden and urged him to do more to stop what she calls the “genocide” in Gaza. 

“Where’s your red line, President Biden?” she said in remarks. 

Earlier in May, Biden halted a shipment of thousands of larger bombs — weighing almost a ton and a quarter ton — that have inflicted high civilian casualties throughout Israel’s campaign. Beyond that, Biden has been reluctant to wield much pressure on Israeli leaders to force a change in policy in the eight months since the war started.

According to the health ministry in Gaza, at least 36,284 Palestinians have been killed in the Palestinian enclave since the beginning of the war that was triggered by Hamas’ October 7 terror attack inside Israeli soil that killed 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages. 

Combatant and civilian casualties are not distinguished in the total death toll, which includes at least 60 deaths over the past 24 hours.

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