CAIRO (AP) — Israel and Hamas are making progress toward another ceasefire and hostage release agreement, officials said Tuesday, as negotiations continued and Israel threatened to expand its offensive into the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, where some 1.4 million Palestinians live have sought refuge.
Talks in Egypt continued a day after Israeli forces rescued two prisoners in Rafah, the crowded southern city on the Egyptian border, in a raid that local health authorities said killed at least 74 Palestinians and caused widespread destruction. The operation offered a taste of what a full-scale ground advance might look like.
A ceasefire agreement, on the other hand, would give the people of Gaza a much-needed reprieve from the war, now in its fifth month, and allow freedom for at least some of the estimated 100 people still held captive in Gaza. Qatar, the United States and Egypt have attempted to broker a deal amid the starkly different positions that both Israel and Hamas have publicly expressed.
Israel has made destroying Hamas’s government and military capabilities and freeing hostages the main goals of its war, which began after thousands of Hamas-led militants rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly Civilians, killed and around 1,000 people killed, 250 people captured. Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from devastated communities.
According to local health authorities, the war has caused unprecedented destruction in the Gaza Strip. More than 28,000 people were killed, more than 70% of them women and minors. Large parts of the territory have been leveled by the Israeli offensive, around 80% of the population has been displaced and a humanitarian catastrophe has driven more than a quarter of the population to starvation.
South Africa, which has filed genocide allegations against Israel at the International Court of Justice, said on Tuesday it had made an “urgent application” to the court to consider whether Israel’s military operations in Rafah constituted a violation of interim orders issued by the judges last month. These orders called on Israel to take greater measures to spare civilians.
Israel has firmly rejected the genocide allegations and said it is conducting its operations in accordance with international law. She blames Hamas for the high death toll because the militants operate in densely populated residential areas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on until “total victory” and insisted military pressure would help free the hostages. But the rescued hostages, 60-year-old Fernando Marman and 70-year-old Louis Har, were only the second and third prisoners freed by the military since the outbreak of war.
Other Israeli officials said only an agreement could lead to the release of large numbers of hostages.
More than 100 were released in exchange for 240 Palestinians detained by Israel during a week-long ceasefire last year. Three hostages were mistakenly killed by Israeli forces in December and a female Israeli soldier was freed in a rescue mission in the first weeks of the war. Israeli officials say around 30 hostages captured on October 7 died either during the initial attack or in captivity.
CLOSING THE GAPS
A senior Egyptian official said mediators had made “relatively significant” progress ahead of a meeting of representatives from Qatar, the United States and Israel in Cairo on Tuesday. The official said the meeting would focus on “developing a final draft” of a six-week ceasefire agreement, with guarantees that the parties would continue negotiations for a permanent ceasefire.
CIA chief William Burns and David Barnea, head of the Israeli spy service Mossad, took part in the talks in Cairo. Both men played key roles in brokering the previous ceasefire.
A Western diplomat in the Egyptian capital also said a six-week deal was on the table but warned that more work was needed to reach an agreement. The diplomat said Tuesday’s meeting will be crucial in closing the remaining gaps.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive conversations with the media.
While officials did not reveal the exact details of the emerging deal, the sides have been discussing different proposals for weeks.
Israel has proposed a two-month ceasefire in which hostages would be released and senior Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries in return for the release of Palestinians held by Israel.
Hamas rejected these conditions. It laid out a three-stage, 45-day plan in which the hostages would be gradually released, Israel would release hundreds of detained Palestinians, including high-ranking militants, and the war would end with the withdrawal of Israeli troops. That was seen as a failure for Israel, which wants to topple Hamas before the war ends.
But President Joe Biden signaled Monday that an agreement could be within reach.
“The key elements of the agreement are on the table,” Biden said during the visit of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, adding: “There are still gaps.” He said the U.S. would do “everything possible” to reach an agreement .
The death toll is rising
Despite ongoing fighting, there were signs of progress.
Palestinians were still counting the dead after the Israeli hostage rescue mission, as the death toll rose to 74 on Tuesday. Residents and displaced Palestinians in Gaza searched through the rubble of Israeli airstrikes, which served as cover for the rescue mission.
Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded pan-Arab broadcaster, said an Israeli airstrike in Rafah left two of its journalists injured and one had to undergo amputation. The injured were cameraman Ahmad Matar and reporter Ismail Abu Omar. It was unclear when the attack took place and the Israeli military had no immediate comment.
While concern grew over Rafah because so many Palestinians are taking refuge there, fighting continued across the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said troops fought militants in Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city, and in the center of the Gaza Strip. On Tuesday it said three soldiers had been killed in combat, bringing the death toll among troops to 232 since the ground operation in Gaza began in late October.
The Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip said the bodies of 133 people killed in Israeli strikes were taken to hospitals last day. According to the ministry, the death toll in Gaza since the war began on October 7 rose to 28,473, with more than 68,000 people injured.
Jobain reported from Rafah in the Gaza Strip and Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa contributed to this report.
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