US working to bridge gaps on Gaza hostage deal, says Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in Vienna

By Humeyra Pamuk

VIENNA (Reuters) -The United States is working intensively with Israel and intermediaries Qatar and Egypt to bridge remaining gaps for a hostage deal that would see a pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office described the latest proposals for a hostage deal by the Islamist movement Hamas as unrealistic on Friday but said a delegation would leave for Qatar to discuss Israel's position on a potential agreement.

Blinken, speaking during a visit to Austria, said Israel sending a team reflected "a sense of both possibility and of urgency" to reach an agreement on the release of hostages.

"We have conversations that are happening now, as we speak here, and I am convinced they'll go on into the coming days," Blinken told reporters.

"This is something that we're committed to, and we will work as long and as hard as it takes to get it done," Blinken said.

Like earlier offers from both sides over the past two months of talks, the Hamas proposal, reviewed by Reuters, envisions the release of dozens of Israeli hostages in return for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

But it also calls for talks during a second phase that would eventually lead to the end of the war. Israel has persistently said it will discuss only temporary pauses in the fighting and will not discuss ending the war until Hamas is eradicated.

Netanyahu's office also said on Friday the prime minister had approved plans for a military operation in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than a million people are sheltering, and said the army was preparing operational issues and the evacuation of the civilian population.

Blinken said the U.S. needs to see a clear and implementable plan for a military operation in Rafah, including to get civilians out of harm's way, but that Washington has not yet seen such a plan.

"We have to see a clear and implementable plan, not only to get civilians out of the harm's way but also to make sure that once out of harm's way, they're appropriately cared for, with shelter, with food, with medicine, with clothing -- and we've not yet seen such a plan," Blinken said.

The United States has grown increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu's government over the past several weeks as Washington has kept pressing Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, where more than half a million people are now at risk of famine.

Israel will try to "flood" the Gaza Strip with humanitarian aid from a variety of entry points, the country's main military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told a group of foreign journalists as international pressure mounted to address the growing problem of hunger in the besieged enclave.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis, Ismail Shakil and Simon LewisEditing by Frances Kerry)