Israel and Hamas are making progress toward a deal that aims to bring about a cease-fire and free hostages held in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the talks, as key meetings continue Tuesday between the sides 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. A brazen Israeli hostage rescue mission freed two captives held in the town along the Egyptian border, 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 U.S. 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, including women and children, according to Israeli authorities. 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.
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 gap
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, U.S. and Israel. Israeli media reported the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, was in Cairo.
The Egyptian official said 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.
He 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.
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