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In Israel, Blinken says Hamas must accept cease-fire deal, offers "cautious optimism" to hostage families

Blinken against Netanyahu's Rafah invasion plan
Blinken opposes Netanyahu's plan for Rafah invasion 02:10

Tel Aviv — Secretary of State Antony Blinken was back in Israel Wednesday morning for his seventh visit to the country since Hamas militants staged their bloody Oct. 7 terror attack on the Jewish state, instantly sparking the war in the group's Gaza Strip stronghold.

Blinken said as he arrived that the Biden administration was "determined" to see Hamas and Israel agree to a cease-fire in the conflict, which health officials in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory say has killed more than 34,000 people, most of them women and children.

Desperate for more American support, Israelis rallied outside Blinken's Tel Aviv hotel, some of them holding signs voicing hope that U.S. pressure will help bring home the remaining 133 hostages still thought to be held in Gaza, including five U.S. nationals still thought to be alive.

Blinken returned to Israel after stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and he met Wednesday with both Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the latest proposal for a cease-fire. Hamas leaders have been reviewing that draft for a couple days and were expected to respond as soon as Wednesday.

Aid worker describes scale of Gaza's humanitarian crisis 05:07

"We are determined to achieve a cease-fire that will bring the abductees home, and to achieve it now," Blinken told Herzog as they stood before news cameras on Wednesday. "The only reason a deal will not be reached is because of Hamas. There is an offer on the table, and as we said, no delays, no excuses."

Blinken told Israeli demonstrators outside his hotel in Tel Aviv on Wednesday that he'd delivered the same message to the families of remaining hostages with whom he met soon after arriving back in Israel.

"Bringing your loved ones home is at the heart of everything we're trying to do, and we will not rest until everyone — man, woman, soldier, civilian, young, old — is back home," he told the group. "There is a very strong proposal on the table right now. Hamas needs to say yes and needs to get this done. That is our determination, and we will not rest, we will not stop until you're reunited with your loved ones. So please keep strong, keep the faith. We will be with you every single day until we get this done."

APTOPIX Israel Palestinians US Blinken
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza during a protest calling for their return, after meeting families of hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 1, 2024. Oded Balilty/AP

It can't possibly happen soon enough for dozens of families, including Aviva Siegel's. Her American husband Keith is still among those being held by Hamas, 208 days after he was seized on Oct. 7.

Over the weekend, he appeared in a Hamas propaganda video. For Siegel, it was proof, at least, that her husband was still alive.

"I think the grief and anguish is unimaginable," she told CBS News in an emotional interview. "I feel like I'm broken up into pieces… I know that Keith has had enough. My family's had enough. My country's had enough."

Aviva was a hostage herself, but she was released after 51 days in captivity.

She and her daughter were among the relatives of American hostages who had a face-to-face with Blinken on Wednesday.

"The feeling was really grateful," Aviva's daughter Elan told CBS News after the meeting. "I think we all feel, and not only the American citizens, I think Israel feels, really grateful for what the United States has been doing since October 7th."

A photo shared by the Hostage Families Forum Headquarters group shows U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with the family of Hamas hostage Keith Siegel in Tel Aviv, May 1, 2024. From left are Lee Siegel, Keith's brother, Blinken, and then Keith's wife Aviva and daughter Elan. Hostage Families Forum Headquarters

A statement from the collective Hostages Families Forum Headquarters, which represents all of the captives' families, characterized the discussion with Blinken as "positive, with Blinken conveying cautious optimism about the emerging deal for their release."

In Jerusalem, Blinken also pushed Netanyahu to increase the flow of desperately needed aid into Gaza and ensure its safe distribution. Israel has taken steps to allow more aid in by land and sea, and aid agencies acknowledge and uptick, but they say it isn't enough to stave off the threat of famine facing tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the enclave.

Blinken and Netanyahu "discussed the improvement in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza since the call between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu on April 4 and reiterated the importance of accelerating and sustaining that improvement," the State Department said in a readout after their meeting. 

The statement noted that Blinken had also reaffirmed the U.S. commitments to Israel's security, "the need to avoid further expansion of the conflict," and the Biden administration's stance that a long-promised Israeli military ground operation in the crowded southern city of Rafah must only begin when the safety of the estimated 1.4 million Palestinians taking shelter there could be assured.

The White House has urged Netanyahu's government to limit the scale of its operation in Rafah, and the head of the United Nations renewed his warning that a military offensive in the city would be "an unbearable escalation, killing thousands more civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee."   

Netanyahu insistent on Rafah invasion regardless of push for hostage deal 02:18

Despite the pressure, Netanyahu promised this week that the operation would go ahead soon and that civilians would be evacuated, but he did not say when the operation would begin.

The Israeli leader has come under increasing pressure from the hostage families to secure an agreement with Hamas to bring the remaining captives home, and that pressure has also ramped up from his political opponents.

After he met with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Blinken sat down with Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid, who said in a social media post that he'd told the top American diplomat "that Netanyahu has no political excuse not to go for the deal for the return of the abductees."  

"They must be brought home," Lapid said. "Every hour is critical."

CBS News' Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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