Thursday, February 22, 2024

Hamas head due in Cairo for truce talks

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Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was expected in Cairo on Thursday for talks on a proposed truce in Gaza, as Israel kept up its offensive in the besieged Palestinian territory.

Hamas was reviewing a proposal for a six-week truce in its war with Israel, a source told AFP, after mediators gathered in Paris, with international efforts towards a new pause in the devastating war gathering pace.

In Gaza, there was no let-up in fighting or aerial bombardment, with the current focus of combat in the main southern city of Khan Yunis, where Israel says leading Hamas militants are hiding.

Overnight, witnesses said several Israeli air strikes hit the city, while aid and health workers have for days reported heavy fighting, particularly around two hospitals.

According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, 119 people were killed in the latest night of strikes.

“There is a massacre taking place right now,” said Leo Cans, head of mission for international NGO Doctors Without Borders for the Palestinian Territories.

This handout picture released by the Israeli army on February 1, 2024, shows Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. PHOTO: AFP

Israel accuses Hamas of operating from tunnels under hospitals in Gaza and of using medical facilities as command centres, a charge denied by the resistance group, which is designated a “terrorist” organisation by the European Union and the United States.

Due to constraints on the delivery of humanitarian aid, the population is “starving to death”, the World Health Organization’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said Wednesday.

“The civilians of Gaza are not parties to this conflict and they should be protected, as should be their health facilities,” he added.

In its latest update, the UN reported heavy bombardment across the Gaza Strip, particularly in Khan Yunis, while it said 184,000 Palestinians from the city were registered to receive humanitarian assistance after fleeing their homes.

As Qatari and Egyptian-led mediation efforts intensified, the Hamas leader was due in Cairo on Thursday to discuss a truce proposal thrashed out in Paris last weekend with CIA chief William Burns.

A Hamas source told AFP the three-stage plan would start with an initial six-week halt to the fighting that would see more aid deliveries into the Gaza Strip.

Only “women, children and sick men over 60” held by Gaza militants would be freed during that stage in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, the source said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks.

There would also be “negotiations around the withdrawal of Israeli forces”, with possible additional phases involving more hostage-prisoner exchanges, said the source, adding the territory’s rebuilding was also among issues addressed by the deal.

Read Israeli plan to destroy Hamas not working, peace talks needed – EU’s Borrell

Israel’s brutal military offensive has killed at least 26,900 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, since Hamas’ October 7 raid into occupied Palestinian territory against Israel’s settler colonial violence.

The attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 Israeli settlers, as per estimates twice lowered by Israeli authorities.

The resistance fighters also seized about 250 hostages. Israel says 132 of them remain in Gaza including at least 29 people believed to have been killed.

Tens of billions of dollars, and seven decades, would be required to rebuild Gaza, which “currently is uninhabitable” as half its structures are damaged or destroyed, the UN Conference on Trade and Development said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out pulling forces from Gaza and repeatedly vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the October attack.

Netanyahu has also opposed releasing “thousands” of Palestinian prisoners as part of any deal, though his office on Sunday called the ongoing negotiations “constructive”.

With the families of scores of Israeli hostages still trapped in Gaza not knowing when their loved ones will return home, there has been mounting criticism of Netanyahu’s government — sparking protests and even calls for early elections.

For people in Gaza, access to humanitarian aid has been further hampered by a major controversy surrounding the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, after Israel accused several of its staff of involvement in the Hamas attack.

The claims last week saw several donor countries, led by key Israel ally the United States, freeze funding for the agency.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a UN committee he had “met with donors to listen to their concerns and to outline the steps we are taking”.

UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told AFP the agency supports “an independent investigation” into the Israeli claims that led to the funding crisis.

Netanyahu told a meeting of UN ambassadors in Jerusalem that UNRWA had been “totally infiltrated” by Hamas. He said other agencies should replace it.

The impact of the war has been felt widely, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas across the Middle East surging since October, drawing in US forces among others.

The White House blamed the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose alliance of pro-Iran armed groups, for a weekend drone attack that killed three American soldiers at a base in Jordan.

The US military said an American naval destroyer shot down three Iranian drones along with an anti-ship missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Wednesday.

It also said it had conducted strikes in Yemen against 10 attack drones and a ground control station belonging to the Houthis, while it also earlier announced a strike on a surface-to-air missile it said posed an “imminent threat” to American aircraft.

The Houthis have repeatedly attacked what they deem to be Israeli-linked ships in the Red Sea.

As a result, the International Monetary Fund said container shipping through the vital trade route has dropped by about one-third this year.


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