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Gaza ceasefire talks underway in Paris as air strikes continue

Published 23/02/2024, 12:44
Updated 24/02/2024, 01:06
© Reuters. An Israeli tank pulls an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 23, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Bassam Masoud

CAIRO/RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) -Gaza truce talks were underway in Paris on Friday, in what appears to be the most serious push for weeks to halt the fighting in the battered Palestinian enclave and see Israeli and foreign hostages released.

A source briefed on the ceasefire talks, who could not be identified by name or nationality, said talks had begun with Israel's head of Mossad intelligence service meeting separately with each party - Qatar, Egypt and United States.

"There are budding signs of optimism about being able to move forward toward the start of a serious negotiation," the source said. Egypt's Al Qahera TV News also reported that the talks had begun.

An official from Hamas said the militant group had wrapped up ceasefire talks in Cairo and was now waiting to see what mediators bring back from the weekend talks with Israel.

Mediators have ramped up efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, in the hope of heading off an Israeli assault on the Gaza city of Rafah where more than a million displaced people are sheltering at the southern edge of the enclave.

Israel says it will attack the city if no truce agreement is reached soon. Washington has called on its close ally not to do so, warning of vast civilian casualties if an assault on the city goes ahead.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met Egyptian mediators in Cairo to discuss a truce this past week on his first visit since December.

Two Egyptian security sources earlier confirmed that Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel would head on Friday to Paris for the talks with the Israelis, after wrapping up talks with Haniyeh on Thursday. Israel has not publicly commented on the Paris talks, which are expected to continue through the weekend.

The Hamas official, who asked not to be identified, said the militant group did not offer any new proposal at the talks with the Egyptians, but was waiting to see what the mediators would bring back from their talks with the Israelis.

"We discussed our proposal with them (the Egyptians) and we are going to wait until they return from Paris," the Hamas official said.

CEASEFIRE OUTLINE EMERGED FROM EARLIER TALKS

The last time similar talks were held in Paris, at the start of February, they produced an outline for the first extended ceasefire of the war, approved by Israel and the United States. Hamas responded with a counterproposal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then rejected as "delusional".

Hamas, which is still believed to be holding more than 100 hostages seized in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war, says it will free them only as part of a truce that ends with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Israel says it will not pull out until Hamas is eradicated.

Late on Thursday, Netanyahu presented his security cabinet with an official plan for Gaza once the fighting stops. He emphasised that Israel expects to maintain security control over the enclave after destroying Hamas, and also sees no role there for the Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the West Bank.

Washington favours a role for a reformed PA.

Two Palestinian officials familiar with the negotiations said Hamas has not changed its stance in the latest push to reach a deal, and still demands that a truce end with an Israeli pullout.

"Israel's position and its response to mediation has been negative and this poses many obstacles towards reaching an agreement," senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said on Friday during a press conference in Beirut.

"Netanyahu is procrastinating... He does not care about the release of his hostages, but rather uses this issue as a card to achieve his goals," Hamdan said.

COMEDIAN'S FAMILY KILLED IN AIR STRIKES

As night fell over the impoverished strip, an air strike targeting a residential unit in central Gaza's Deir Al-Balah killed at least 22 Palestinians, health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said.

Health officials said many family members of Mahmoud Abu Zaeiter, a comedian with 1.2 million online followers, were among the dead.

There was no immediate comment from Israel, which says it is doing its best to minimize harm to civilians as it battles militants in urban areas.

The Gaza health ministry said earlier that 104 people had been killed and 160 others were wounded in Israeli military strikes in the past 24 hours.

The Israeli military said it had killed dozens of militants and seized weapons across Gaza since Thursday.

At a morgue in Rafah, where over half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are sheltering, a family knelt by the body of their child, killed by Israeli strikes overnight into Friday. They tenderly touched and stroked the small body through a shroud.

Deir al-Balah is one of the few other areas yet to be stormed by the Israelis. In video obtained by Reuters, bereaved families crowded a hospital, where Ahmed Azzam held up the body of his dead baby son wrapped in a shroud, shouting: "You killed them Netanyahu. You killed this innocent child!"

© Reuters. An Israeli tank pulls an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 23, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera

At least 29,514 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza since Oct.7, the Gaza health ministry said on Friday.

Israel launched its months-long military campaign after militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on Oct 7.

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