By Samy Magdy, Najib Jobain And Tia Goldenberg, The Associated Press on February 13, 2024.
CAIRO (AP) – Israel and Hamas are making progress toward a deal that aims to bring about a cease-fire and free hostages held in the Gaza Strip, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the talks, as key meetings continue Tuesday in the Egyptian capital.
Talks are moving forward even after Israel intensified its offensive in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere. Israeli forces rescued two captives held in the town along the Egyptian border in a raid that killed at least 74 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and left a trail of destruction.
A deal would give people in Gaza a desperately needed respite from the war, now in its fifth month, and offer freedom for at least some of the 100 people still held captive in Gaza. With the war grinding on, efforts mediated by Qatar, the United States and Egypt to bring about a deal have been hobbled by the starkly disparate positions of Hamas and Israel.
Israel has made destroying Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages the main goals of its war, which was launched after thousands of Hamas-led militants rampaged through southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 people captive. Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from destroyed communities.
The war has wrought unimaginable destruction in the Gaza Strip, with more than 28,000 people killed, more than 70% of them women and minors, according to local health officials. Vast swaths of the territory have been flattened by Israel’s offensive, around 80% of the population has been displaced and a humanitarian catastrophe has pushed more than a quarter of Palestinians in Gaza toward starvation.
South Africa, which has lodged genocide allegations against Israel at the International Court of Justice, said on Thursday that it filed an “urgent request” with the court to consider whether Israel’s military operations in Rafah constitute a breach of provisional orders handed down by the justices last month.
Israel has adamantly denied the allegations and insists it takes every measure to spare civilians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on until “total victory,” and has insisted that strong military pressure will secure the hostages’ freedom – an idea his allies say was bolstered by the successful rescue mission. But the rescued hostages, Fernando Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, were just the second and third captives to be freed by the military since the war erupted.
Other Israeli officials have said only a deal can bring about the release of so many hostages.
A deal in late November brought about a brief truce in exchange for the release of about 100 hostages. About 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel were also freed as part of the deal. Israel says about 30 captives are believed to have died or been killed while in captivity, with their bodies still in Gaza. Three hostages were killed erroneously by Israeli forces in December and one female Israeli soldier was freed in a rescue mission in the early weeks of the war.
BRIDGING THE GAPS
A senior Egyptian official said mediators have achieved what he described as “relatively significant” progress in the negotiations between Israel and Hamas ahead of a scheduled meeting in Cairo on Tuesday of representatives from Qatar, the U.S. and Israel.
An Israeli delegation, led by David Barnea, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, was in Cairo, the official said.
He added the meeting would focus on “crafting a final draft” of a six-week cease-fire deal, with guarantees that the parties would continue negotiations toward a permanent cease-fire.
A Western diplomat in the Egyptian capital also said a six-week deal was on the table but cautioned that more work is still needed to reach an agreement.
The diplomat said the meeting Tuesday would be crucial in bridging the remaining gaps to get the two sides to agree on a six-week truce and embark on talks for a final cease-fire deal.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media.
OUTLINES FOR A DEAL
While the officials did not disclose the precise details of the emerging deal, the sides have been discussing varying proposals for weeks.
Israel has proposed a two-month cease-fire in which hostages would be freed in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries.
Hamas rejected those terms. It laid out a three-phased plan of 45 days each in which the hostages would be released in stages, Israel would free hundreds of imprisoned Palestinians, including senior militants, and the war would be wound down with Israel withdrawing its troops. That was viewed as a nonstarter for Israel, which wants to topple Hamas before ending the war.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated last week on a visit to the region that there was hope the talks might lead to a deal, and on Monday, President Joe Biden also signaled they were heading closer to fruition.
“The key elements of the deal are on the table,” Biden said alongside visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II, adding, “there are gaps that remain.”
He said the U.S. would do “everything possible” to make an agreement happen.
DEATH TOLL MOUNTS
The signs of progress came despite ongoing fighting.
Palestinians were still counting the dead after Israel’s hostage rescue mission, with the death toll climbing to 74 on Tuesday. Residents and displaced Palestinians in Gaza were searching through the rubble from Israeli airstrikes that provided cover for the Israeli forces.
Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab broadcaster funded by Qatar, said an Israeli airstrike in Rafah wounded two of its journalists, with one having to undergo an amputation. It identified the wounded as cameraman Ahmad Matar and reporter Ismail Abu Omar. It was unclear when the strike took place and the Israeli military had no immediate comment.
While concerns have grown over Rafah because it is sheltering such a massive influx of Palestinians, fighting was continuing throughout the Gaza Strip, with the Israeli military saying troops were battling militants in Gaza’s second largest city, Khan Younis, and in central Gaza. It said Tuesday that three soldiers were killed in combat, raising the death toll among troops since the Gaza ground operation began in late October to 232.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says the bodies of 133 people killed in Israeli strikes were brought to hospitals over the past day. The fatalities brought the death toll in Gaza to 28,473 since the war began on Oct. 7, according to the ministry, which says more than 68,000 people have been wounded.
Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Goldenberg from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.
Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war