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Blinken says he will tell Israelis Rafah invasion would be a ‘mistake’

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CAIRO — Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed optimism Thursday that a deal to pause fighting in Gaza and free hostages held captive there would eventually be reached, but he said he intends to deliver a tough message to Israeli leaders that a potential invasion of the packed city of Rafah would be a “mistake.”

Tensions between the United States and Israel have flared over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to invade the city in southern Gaza where more than 1 million Palestinian civilians have sought refuge amid the violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Blinken, on his sixth visit to the Middle East since the war between Hamas and Israel broke out in October, is pushing to finalize an Arab-backed vision for post-conflict Gaza that would eventually lead to a Palestinian state. He is due in Israel on Friday.

After a day of meetings with the foreign ministers of major Arab nations, Blinken said during a news conference here that they were close to having a plan they could present to Israel. But he acknowledged that the Israeli government may not be ready to accept Palestinian statehood — which would imperil the rest of the plan.

“On the big principles, we have pretty much a shared approach,” Blinken said of the discussions with the top diplomats of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority. “It’s hard for people to focus on the future and how to get out of this endless cycle of terrorism and violence, death, destruction, but it’s important that we be working on that so when the moment is right … that is there.”

Blinken said, too, that there has been progress in the cease-fire talks occurring indirectly between Israel and Hamas. Gaps “are narrowing,” he said, standing alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

The assessment fueled hope that a deal to pause hostilities and free additional Israeli hostages could eventually be reached as senior negotiators convene in Qatar on Friday.

“We’re continuing to push for an agreement in Doha,” Blinken said, noting that he “can’t put a timeline” on when a deal might be struck. “There’s still difficult work to get there.”

The Israeli prime minister’s office said top negotiators from Israel, Qatar, the United States and Hamas would participate, with CIA Director William J. Burns representing Washington.

Also Friday, a U.S.-sponsored resolution supporting the temporary cease-fire and hostage release will be up for a vote in the U.N. Security Council. The measure “is an opportunity for the Council to speak with one voice to support the diplomacy happening … and pressure Hamas to accept the deal on the table,” U.S. mission spokesman Nate Evans said. It also calls for “all parties to the conflict” to adhere to international law protecting civilians.

Blinken said he was concerned about the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, saying Israel “needs to do more” to speed aid into the embattled territory.

“Children should not be dying of malnutrition in Gaza, or anywhere else for that matter,” he added. “We cannot, we must not allow that to continue.”

Blinken has been trying to hammer out a plan to present to Israeli leaders that would trade the lure of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia with Israel’s consent to a Palestinian state. It would also set up a plan for how Gaza is administered and reconstructed after the war. The top U.S. diplomat met Wednesday in the Saudi port city of Jeddah with the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, called for a speedy end to the conflict, saying that “there is no room to wait, there is no room to increase the suffering, and there is no reason for the war to continue.”

In the latest bout of fighting in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said it was continuing a raid on al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and the surrounding area.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said accessing the facility has become “impossible, and there are reports of health workers being arrested and detained.” A WHO mission to al-Shifa was canceled Thursday due to security concerns, he added.

The IDF said 140 militants have been killed including “during exchanges of fire” in a days-long raid on the al-Shifa medical complex. The IDF said that 600 suspects had been arrested and that it had uncovered weapons storage facilities in the area.

Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv, and Bryan Pietsch and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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