May 4, 2024

Gaza truce talks expected to resume in Egypt

Gaza truce talks expected to resume in Egypt

Truce talks were expected to resume Saturday in Egypt aimed at halting months of war in Gaza between Hamas militants and Israel that have triggered widening protests around the world.

Mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been waiting for the Palestinian Islamist movement to respond to a proposal that, according to details released by Britain, would halt fighting for 40 days and exchange hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

“All delegations have now arrived in Egypt, and at one o’clock (1000 GMT), the first round of negotiations will begin with the presence of all Qatari, Egyptian, and even American delegations,” a senior Hamas official, not authorised to talk publicly, told AFP anonymously.

Months of negotiations stalled in part on Hamas’s demand for a lasting ceasefire and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated vows to crush the group’s remaining fighters in Rafah, along the Egyptian border in Gaza’s far south.

The prospect of a Rafah invasion, threatened for three months alongside stop-start truce talks, has sparked intensifying global alarm.

After a meeting in Cairo about a week ago, the Hamas delegation returned to Qatar, where its chief Ismail Haniyeh is based, to discuss the truce proposal.

The war broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has carried out a retaliatory campaign of bombardment and fighting on the ground that has killed at least 34,654 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

More deaths 

Gaza’s Civil Defence agency and hospitals reported several more deaths from strikes in Gaza’s north, centre, and in Rafah.

The United Nations says more than 70 percent of Gaza’s residential buildings have been completely or partly destroyed, and rebuilding will require an effort unseen since World War II.

Accepting a ceasefire deal with Israel should be a “no-brainer” for Hamas, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late Friday.

“The reality in this moment is the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas,” Blinken said.

The World Health Organization says 1.2 million people, half of Gaza’s population, have sought refuge in Rafah. Aid groups say an invasion would only add to an existing humanitarian catastrophe.

On Friday WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed deep concern “that a full-scale military operation in Rafah, Gaza, could lead to a bloodbath.”

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, said  a military operation in Rafah could “strike a disastrous blow” to agencies struggling to provide aid.

‘Open mind’ 

Al-Qahera News, linked to Egyptian intelligence services, quoted an unnamed high-ranking source as saying “there is significant progress in the negotiations” and that the Egyptian mediators have “reached an agreed-upon formula on most points of contention”.

The senior Hamas official told AFP that the movement “looks with an open mind to changes in the occupation’s (Israel’s) position and the American position, but there are issues that must be addressed.”

On Friday senior Hamas official Hossam Badran had accused Netanyahu of trying to undermine the latest proposal with his threats to keep fighting with or without a deal.

Badran said Netanyahu’s insistence on attacking Rafah was calculated to “thwart any possibility of concluding an agreement”.

Protesters in Israel have also accused Netanyahu of seeking to prolong the war.

The prime minister, on trial for corruption charges he denies, leads a coalition which includes religious and ultra-nationalist parties.

Demonstrators have regularly taken to Israeli streets demanding the government reach a deal to bring home the hostages.

In their October attack the militants seized hostages, of whom 128 remain in Gaza, including 35 who the military says are dead.

Blinken on Friday also reiterated Washington’s objections to a Rafah offensive, saying Israel has not presented a plan to protect the civilians sheltering there.

During the only previous truce, over one week in November, 80 Israeli hostages were exchanged for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Wartime wedding 

Pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place across US universities for weeks were more muted Friday after a series of clashes with police, mass arrests and a stern White House directive to restore order.

Similar demonstrations have spread to campuses in Britain, France, Mexico, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

United States President Joe Biden is also under pressure from within his own Democratic Party. A letter signed by 88 Democratic members of the House of Representatives expressed serious concern over Israel’s “deliberate withholding” of aid and urged Biden to consider halting arms sales unless Israel’s conduct changes.

Washington has already exerted pressure, and Israel has allowed increased aid deliveries. Israel said the Erez crossing in north Gaza has reopened for aid entry, and assistance has arrived via the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Food availability has improved “a little bit” but the famine threat has not gone away, said Rik Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the Palestinian territories. He stressed that the war had “destroyed” local production of fruit, vegetables and fish.

Despite the daily struggle to survive, dozens of Palestinians on Friday gathered under decorative lights on the sand in Khan Yunis city near Rafah for a mass wedding. The grooms, one of them on crutches, wore matching dark suits over white shirts.

The war remained close.

Israel’s military said its fighter jets struck a munitions launch site in the Khan Yunis area on Friday after a projectile was fired towards Israel. Air strikes hit other launchers in southern and central Gaza, and naval fire supported ground troops in the territory’s centre, the military said.

Overnight Friday-Saturday an AFP correspondent heard intense explosions and heavy gunfire from clashes between Palestinian militants and the Israeli forces in the Gaza City area of the territory’s north.


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