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Hamas team due in Egypt as Gaza truce effort builds

By AFP

April 29, 2024 08:57 AM


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A Hamas delegation is due to arrive Monday in Egypt, where it will respond to Israel's latest proposal for a long-sought hostage-release deal and truce in the Gaza Strip after almost seven months of war.

Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been trying to mediate an agreement between Israel and Hamas for months, as the death toll in Gaza rises and calls for a deal intensify.

But despite intense pressure to reach a ceasefire, secure the release of hostages held in Gaza and allow more humanitarian aid into the war-battered territory, a deal has remained elusive.

The Palestinian Islamist group said Sunday it had no "major issues" with the content of Israel's most recent offer for a truce.

"The atmosphere is positive unless there are new Israeli obstacles," a senior Hamas official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Humanitarians say the war has brought Gaza to the brink of famine, reduced much of it to rubble and raised fears of broader conflict.

At a market in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where Israeli officials have vowed to rout Hamas fighters, shoppers said prices of fresh vegetables have risen.

Mohammed Sarhan, 48, said 100 shekels ($26) used to buy enough for a week, but now it is "not enough for one meal for my family".

More than one million Palestinians have taken shelter in the city.

Protesters in Israel are demanding that the government secure the freedom of hostages seized by militants during the unprecedented October 7 attack that triggered the war.

Since a one-week halt to the fighting in November saw 80 Israeli hostages exchanged for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, mediators Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been working to secure a new truce.

Hamas's October attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,454 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel estimates that 129 hostages are still being held in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

Hamas has previously insisted on a permanent ceasefire -- a condition Israel has rejected.

- 'A complete failing' -

However, the Axios news website, citing two Israeli officials, reported that Israel's latest proposal includes a willingness to discuss the "restoration of sustainable calm" in Gaza after hostages are released.

It is the first time that Israeli leaders have suggested they are open to discussing an end to the war, Axios said.

A Hamas source close to the negotiations had told AFP the group "is open to discussing the new proposal positively" and is "keen to reach an agreement that guarantees a permanent ceasefire, the free return of displaced people, an acceptable deal for (prisoner) exchange and ensuring an end to the siege" in Gaza.

As diplomatic efforts intensified, US President Joe Biden spoke with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Sunday and reviewed the ongoing talks, the White House said.

At a summit in Riyadh beginning Sunday, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the international community had failed Gaza.

"The situation in Gaza obviously is a catastrophe by every measure –- humanitarian, but also a complete failing of the existing political system to deal with that crisis," Prince Faisal told the World Economic Forum (WEF) special meeting.

He reiterated that only "a credible, irreversible path to a Palestinian state" will prevent the world from confronting "this same situation two, three, four years down the line".

Netanyahu's hard-right government rejects calls for a Palestinian state.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority has partial administrative control in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, appealed at the WEF meeting for the United States to stop Israel from invading Rafah, which he said would be "the biggest disaster in the history of the Palestinian people".

Israel has pledged to go after Hamas battalions in the southern Gaza city on the border with Egypt, but the prospect has raised global alarm because much of Gaza's population has sought shelter there.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz signalled on Saturday, however, that Israel would be willing to call off an invasion of Rafah if Hamas accepted a deal to release hostages.

"If there is a deal, we will suspend the operation," Katz told Israel's Channel 12.

- Protests  -

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who backs steps towards a Palestinian state, is among the high-ranking global officials due in Riyadh.

He will also visit Israel and Jordan on a trip through Wednesday, the State Department announced.

Gaza's health ministry on Sunday reported at least 66 deaths in the previous 24 hours, down from a peak this month of at least 153 deaths on April 9.

Israel's military said its jets had struck dozens of targets.

Israeli demonstrators have intensified protests calling for their government to reach a deal that would free the captives, accusing Netanyahu of prolonging the war.

Netanyahu, on trial for corruption charges he denies, leads a coalition including religious and ultra-nationalist parties.

On Sunday two of his ministers opposed a truce deal. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich wrote on X that if Netanyahu does not proceed with the Rafah operation his government "will have no right to exist".

War cabinet member Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main rival who has called for early elections, said Rafah "is important in the long struggle against Hamas".

In February, Netanyahu said any truce deal would not prevent a Rafah operation.

- France seeks de-escalation -

UN humanitarian agency OCHA has warned that "famine thresholds in Gaza will be breached within the next six weeks" if massive food aid does not arrive.

The White House said Sunday that a US-made pier meant to boost aid to Gaza will become operational in two to three weeks but cannot replace land routes.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on ABC News that Israel is letting in more trucks, in line with "commitments that President Biden asked them to meet".

A cargo ship, the Jennifer, which left Cyprus carrying aid from the United Arab Emirates, was off Israel's Ashdod port on Sunday night, the vesselfinder.com tracker showed.

The Gaza war has led to increased violence between Israel and Iran's proxies and allies, in particular the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon.

Iran also backs Yemen's Huthis, who have been waging a campaign of drone and missile attacks against ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden they say are linked to Israel.

The US Central Command said Monday that it had "successfully engaged five airborne unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the Red Sea" in the early hours of Sunday Sanaa time, determining that the drones posed an "imminent threat" to US, allied and commercial vessels in the region.


AFP


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