Israel-Hamas war

Truce talks open in Cairo as Gazans brace for Israeli assault on Rafah


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Truce talks open in Cairo as Gazans brace for Israeli assault on Rafah

IN RAFAH. A Palestinian man looks at the site of an Israeli strike on a mosque, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 12, 2024.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

(1st UPDATE) 'The United States is working on a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas which would bring an immediate and sustained period of calm into Gaza for at least six weeks,' US President Joe Biden says

Officials from the United States, Egypt, Israel and Qatar were meeting in Cairo on Tuesday, February 13, to try to agree a truce in Gaza as international calls grew for Israel to hold back on its planned assault on the Palestinian enclave’s southern city of Rafah.

More than one million displaced civilians are crammed into Rafah, many living in camps and makeshift shelters, having fled to there from Israeli bombardments in other areas of Gaza during more than four months of warfare.

Israel says it wants to flush out Hamas militants from hideouts in Rafah and free Israeli hostages being held there, and is making plans to evacuate trapped Palestinian civilians. But no plan has been forthcoming and aid agencies say the displaced have nowhere else to go in the shattered territory.

Israeli tanks shelled the eastern sector of Rafah overnight, causing waves of panic, residents said.

Rafah neighbors Egypt but Cairo has made clear it will not allow a refugee exodus over the border.

Gaza health officials announced 133 new Palestinian deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 28,473 killed and 68,146 wounded since October 7.

Many other people are believed to be buried under rubble of destroyed buildings across the densely populated enclave, much of which is in ruins. Supplies of food, water and other essentials are running out and diseases are spreading.

Around half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now packed into Rafah, many of whom who fled other areas under fire.

“Since Israel said they are invading Rafah soon…we read our last prayers every night. Every night we say farewell to one another and to relatives outside Rafah,” said 30-year-old Aya, who is living in a tent with her mother, grandmother and five siblings.

Ceasefire and hostages

In Cairo, efforts were underway to secure a truce in a war whose impact has been felt across the Middle East. Egypt’s state-linked Al Qahera News said talks had started on Tuesday involving US, Qatari, Egyptian and Israeli officials.

“The sides are looking for a formula that will be acceptable to Hamas, who says it is only possible to sign a deal once it is based on an Israeli commitment to ending its war and pulling out its forces from the Gaza Strip,” a Palestinian official told Reuters.

The official said Hamas had told the participants it does not trust Israel not to renew the war if the Israeli hostages being held by Palestinian militants are released.

The hostages were seized in the October 7 raid on southern Israel by Hamas fighters which killed 1,200 people and triggered Israel’s military onslaught. Securing their return is a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as well as wiping out Hamas, which governs Gaza.

A senior Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, blamed Israel for the lack of progress in peace efforts so far. There has been one truce to date, lasting a week at the end of November.

“The occupation (Israel) is still stalling and is undermining any effort to reach an agreement. It is playing the game of wasting time to pursue its war of genocide against our people in Gaza,” Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

There was no comment from Israel on the status of the talks but it says it tries to minimize civilian deaths and says Hamas fighters hide among civilians, something the group denies.

“We are keen to attack Hamas targets without Hamas terrorists using civilians as human shields,” Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said on Tuesday.

‘Pretty much unlivable’

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who will visit Israel on Wednesday, voiced concern about the looming Israeli offensive on Rafah. She said Israel had the right to defend itself against terrorism, but this did not mean the expulsion of the population.

South Africa on Tuesday asked the World Court to consider whether Israel’s plan to extend its offensive into Rafah required additional emergency measures to protect Palestinians’ rights.

In a case brought by South Africa, the International Court of Justice last month ordered Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent its troops committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel denies it is committing genocide and had asked the court to reject the case outright.

The South African government expressed concern that an offensive would result in further large-scale killing, harm and destruction.

Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, said it had not been informed of any Israeli evacuation plan for Rafah and was not part of it.

“Where are you going to evacuate people to as no place is safe across the Gaza Strip, the north is shattered, riddled with unexploded weapons, it’s pretty much unlivable,” she said, adding that UNRWA would not participate in a forced evacuation.

“Enough is enough. Any further escalation would be absolutely apocalyptic.”

On Monday, US President Joe Biden said Washington was working on a hostage deal to bring “immediate and sustained” calm to Gaza for at least six weeks.

He has urged Israel not to undertake a ground offensive in Rafah without a plan to protect civilians.

In the latest bloodshed, Israel’s military said its forces had killed dozens of Palestinian fighters in clashes in southern and central Gaza over the last 24 hours.

Gaza health officials said an Israeli strike on a house in Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed 16 Palestinians overnight. –

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