Gaza truce talks make ‘significant progress’ as Israel prepares for ‘Rafah mission’

CAIRO: Talks in Cairo towards a Gaza truce and hostage release deal have made “significant progress”, according to Egyptian state-linked media.

More than half a year into the war since the October 7 attack, Israel has warned it was ready for future military operations against Hamas in Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah, the last area so far spared a ground incursion.

Israel on Sunday pulled its forces out of the southern Gaza Strip and the main city there, Khan Younis, allowing large numbers of displaced Palestinians to return to the devastated urban area. But Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stressed the aim was for Israeli forces “to prepare for future missions, including in Rafah” on the Egyptian border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said Israel was “one step away from victory.” But, as truce talks resumed, Netanyahu also told his cabinet that “Israel is ready for a deal,” adding “there will be no ceasefire without the return of hostages.”

International pressure has mounted on Israel to end the war, which has brought mass civilian casualties and destroyed swathes of the coastal Palestinian territory.

Israel’s diplomatic backer and arms supplier the U.S. last week demanded a ceasefire and hostage release deal along with ramped-up aid deliveries.

U.S. President Joe Biden sharpened his tone after voicing “outrage” over an Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers from the food charity World Central Kitchen. While Israel and Hamas have kept up bellicose rhetoric, they have also sent negotiators to Cairo, joined by mediators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar.

Egyptian state-linked news outlet Al-Qahera reported “significant progress being made on several contentious points of agreement.” It said Qatari and Hamas delegations had left Cairo and were expected to return “within two days to finalize the terms of the agreement.”

U.S. and Israeli delegations were also due to leave the Egyptian capital “in the next few hours” for consultations over the next 48 hours, it added.

In Jerusalem at the weekend, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz described the Cairo talks as the closest the sides have come to a deal since a November truce under which Hamas freed dozens of hostages.

“We have reached a critical point in the negotiations. If it works out, then a large number of hostages will come home,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

Displaced Palestinians

Israel’s 98th commando division withdrew from Khan Younis on Sunday and left Gaza “in order to recuperate and prepare for future operations,” the army said.

After troops left the largely destroyed city, a stream of displaced Palestinians walked there, hoping to return to their homes from temporary shelters in Rafah, a little further south.

Thousands gathered on Sunday in front of Israel’s parliament to demand the return of the hostages. Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,175 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Vast areas of Gaza have been turned into a rubble-strewn wasteland, with damage to infrastructure, mostly housing, estimated at $18.5 billion, a World Bank report said. Charities have accused Israel of blocking aid, but Israel has defended its efforts and blamed shortages on aid organisations’ inability to distribute assistance once it gets in.

“The denial of basic needs – food, fuel, sanitation, shelter, security and health care – is inhumane and intolerable,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Aid trucks entered Gaza via the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Sunday, and medical supplies were brought in via Israel’s Erez crossing in the north.

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