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Shin Bet chief in Egypt as Gaza fighting rages, Netanyahu adds Israeli demands

Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar traveled to Cairo to advance a deal that would see a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of the hostages held there.
Mossad intelligence agency chief David Barnea (R) and Ronen Bar (2nd L), chief of Israel's domestic Shin Bet security agency, attend a ceremony marking Memorial Day for fallen soldiers of Israel's wars and victims of attacks at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl military cemetery on May 13, 2024. Israel marks Memorial Day to commemorate fallen soldiers and victims of attacks recorded since 1860 by the defence ministry, just before the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of its creation according to the Jewish calenda

Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar traveled to Egypt on Monday to advance a proposal for the release of the hostages held in the Gaza Strip as expectations dipped for a deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made five demands for any agreement with Hamas. 

CIA chief William Burns and top White House Middle East adviser Brett McGurk also arrived in the Egyptian capital Monday, Axios reported, where they are meeting with Egyptian and Israeli officials for talks on the cease-fire deal.

According to Ynet, Bar traveled to Cairo together with the Defense Ministry's political-military director, Dror Shalom, the Israeli military's strategic director, Eliezer Toledano, and Coordinator for Government activities in the Territories Ghassan Alian. The Israeli team is expected to discuss the Rafah border crossing, which is currently under Israeli control, and Israel's quest to construct an underground barrier along the Gaza-Egypt border to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s office announced five prerequisites for any deal: Israel will resume fighting until it completes the goals of the war, there will be no smuggling of weapons to Gaza from Egypt, thousands of armed Hamas assailants will not be allowed to return to the north of the Strip, the living hostages to be released will be maximized and the deal cannot undermine Israel's war objectives.

Fighting rages in Gaza

As Netanyahu pressed his new demands, the Israeli military on Monday expanded an evacuation order for Gaza City as fighting intensified, Agence France-Presse reported. 

Civilians were ordered out of the majority of the Gaza Strip's largest city, where thousands of families had taken shelter from fighting in other parts of the war-stricken territory, AFP said. 

An Israeli army spokesperson warned residents of the Sabra, Rimal, Tal Al-Hawa and Al-Daraj districts to flee to so-called humanitarian zones.

The Hamas-run authorities said before the additional warning that it had reports of "dozens" of dead and wounded over the last 24 hours.

Resumption of talks

Bar's visit to Cairo follows Mossad Chief David Barnea's trip to Qatar on Friday.

Axios reported on Saturday that Burns is expected to travel to Doha this week to join further talks with Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed al-Thani and head of Egyptian Intelligence Abbas Kamel.

The deal, presented by Biden at the end of May, includes three phases. The first stage would see all the women, sick and elderly captives released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli military troops from urban areas in the Strip. During this stage, the parties are expected to negotiate the terms for the second stage, which would include the end of hostilities and complete withdrawal of the Israeli military from Gaza. It would also include the release of the remaining hostages, including men and male soldiers, also in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The third stage would involve the reconstruction of Gaza. 

Netanyahu has been rejecting Hamas’ demand for guarantees that Israel will end all fighting in Gaza, insisting that he will not give up the goals of the war, which include the elimination of the military and governing capabilities of Hamas. It is unclear whether Hamas has backed down from this demand. 

The Associated Press reported Monday that several senior Hamas figures in Gaza have urged the group’s exiled political leadership in Qatar to accept the deal advanced by Biden. Citing an unnamed Middle East official, the agency reported that the heavy losses Hamas has suffered on the battlefield and the dire conditions in the Strip have created pressure to reach a deal. It also reported that Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar might not be aware of the extent of these losses. 

Demonstrations in Israel

Thousands of people demonstrated across Israel Sunday after groups campaigning for the release of the hostages called for a "Day of Rage" and general strike. On Sunday morning, protesters blocked highways near Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Cesaria (where Netanyahu's private residence is located) and in the north of the country. Demonstrations were held outside the homes of many cabinet ministers. On Sunday evening, protesters gathered in Tel Aviv for a rally.

Hard-line Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who objects to a deal for the release of the hostages before Hamas is overthrown, said on Monday it would be a huge mistake to stop Israel's military offensive in Gaza. "Hamas is collapsing and begging for a cease-fire. This is the time to squeeze the neck until we crush and break the enemy. To stop now, just before the end, and let him recover and fight us again is a senseless folly," Smotrich wrote on X. Smotrich and his far-right colleague, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, have threatened to topple Netanyahu’s government if he accepts such a deal. 

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reiterated Monday his offer to provide Netanyahu with a political safety net for accepting a hostage-release deal. “There’s a hostage deal on the table. It is not true that Netanyahu has to choose between the hostage deal and his continued tenure as prime minister. I promised him a safety net, and I will keep that promise,” Lapid told reporters.

This developing story has been updated since initial publication.