Talks on Gaza hostage deal taking place at official level in Qatar

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Indirect negotiations on a ceasefire in the war in Gaza were continuing at official levels in the Qatari capital Doha on Sunday, the pro-government Egyptian broadcaster Al-Kahira News reported citing Cairo government officials.

Egypt, Qatar and the US are mediating in the talks, which are also intended to lead to the release of hostages held by Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas.

A high-ranking Israeli delegation led by foreign intelligence chief David Barnea met representatives of the mediating states in Paris on Saturday, where reports said “significant progress” was made.

The Israeli war cabinet, which met on Saturday evening under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, authorized the continuation of the talks at official level, according to Israeli broadcaster Kan.

According to Israeli government officials cited by the broadcaster, 35 to 40 hostages could be released in the first phase if an agreement is reached.

These would mainly be women, children, elderly men and men with serious illnesses or injuries. In return, Israel would release 300 Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

Hamas still has around 100 hostages presumed to be alive. The ceasefire would last around six weeks and would come into force before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, beginning March 10.

It is unclear how much Hamas has adjusted its conditions for an agreement. Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera quoted an unnamed Hamas official on Sunday as saying that the reality on the ground did not reflect the reported optimism for an imminent deal.

In any case, Netanyahu is expected to remain opposed to Hamas’ central demand for an indefinite cessation of hostilities and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu told US broadcaster CBS in comments aired on Sunday that “if Hamas goes down from its delusional claims and goes down- can bring them down to earth, then we’ll have the progress that we all want.”

Israeli bombardment of Gaza continued over the weekend with Palestinian sources reporting a large number of civilian victims from the latest attacks.

The state-run Palestinian news agency Wafa reported that three people died in a bomb attack on a residential block in Sabra in Gaza City.

Dozens more, including women and children, died in Israeli artillery and air attacks in Khan Younis, the largest city in the south of the coastal territory, and in Gaza City in the north, Wafa reported. These reports could also not be independently verified.

Netanyahu wants to quickly launch plans for a military offensive in Rafah despite the ongoing negotiations on a ceasefire. The Israeli military presented its next operational plans, including a planned offensive in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, to the war cabinet on Sunday.

The prime minister’s office late on Sunday said that the military plan included “a plan for the evacuation of the population from the combat areas in the Gaza Strip.”

A plan for the provision of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip was also approved “to prevent looting in the northern strip and other areas,” it said. No details were given in the brief announcement.

Internationally, the planned assault on the city of Rafah has been heavily criticized. Rafah is overcrowded with refugees who fled from the war in other parts of the sealed-off coastal area, and it’s estimated to have around 1.5 million Palestinians crammed together living in miserable conditions.

However, Netanyahu is determined to press his offensive in Rafah. The prime minister insisted that it would be impossible to achieve his war goal of eliminating Hamas if four Hamas battalions remained in Rafah.

He told CBS’s “Face The Nation” programme that Hamas would be defeated within weeks once an offensive in Rafah is launched.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization that – once we begin the Rafah operation, the intense phase of the fighting is weeks away from completion, not months, weeks away from completion,” he said in the interview.

“Total victory is important to achieve the war goal of destroying Hamas, releasing the hostages, and ensuring that Gaza doesn’t pose a threat,” Netanyahu said.

More than 29,600 people have now died in Isreali attacks on Gaza, according to the Hamas-controlled health authority. Israel’s invasion followed the October 7 attacks led by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which killed around 1,200 people in Israel.

Palestinians inspect the destruction caused by an Israeli air strike on the Al-Khatib family's house and other buildings. Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa

Palestinians inspect the destruction caused by an Israeli air strike on the Al-Khatib family’s house and other buildings. Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa

A tractor removes the rubble of a ruined house following an Israeli air strike. Abed Rahim Khatib/dpaA tractor removes the rubble of a ruined house following an Israeli air strike. Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa

A tractor removes the rubble of a ruined house following an Israeli air strike. Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa

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