Hopeful signs for Israel-Hamas cease-fire seen

A Palestinian looks at destruction after an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Thursday.
(AP/Fatima Shbair)
A Palestinian looks at destruction after an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Thursday. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

JERUSALEM -- International efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas appeared to gain new momentum on Thursday as the White House said a visit by a senior envoy with Israeli leaders was "going well" and other mediators reported encouraging signs from the warring parties.

The new signs of progress came ahead of a summit this weekend in Paris, where mediators are expected to offer a new proposal. The U.S., Egypt and Qatar have been struggling for weeks to find a formula that could halt Israel's devastating offensive in Gaza, but now face an unofficial deadline as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.

White House Mideast envoy Brett McGurk held talks throughout the day with Israeli leaders and families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

Spokesman John Kirby said the talks were constructive. "The initial indications we're getting from Brett are these discussions are going well," Kirby said.

A Western diplomat involved in the efforts said both sides want a pause. "What we have heard from our partners is that they are willing to give concessions," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door diplomacy. "Time is pressing them."

In new fighting, Israeli strikes killed over 70 people in southern and central Gaza, Palestinian health officials said Thursday.

Israel declared war after Hamas militants stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive has left over 29,000 Palestinians dead, caused widespread destruction, displaced an estimated 80% of Gaza's population and fueled a humanitarian disaster.

Roughly half of the hostages were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November. About 100 hostages remain in captivity, in addition to the bodies of 30 others who were killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity.

Israel is demanding the release of the remaining hostages as part of any pause but has vowed to press ahead with the offensive until Hamas' military and governing capabilities are destroyed. Hamas wants an end to the war, a full withdrawal of troops and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners Israel is holding.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the Hamas demands as "delusional." But in recent days, Israeli leaders have begun to voice cautious optimism and Hamas has signaled it is softening its demands.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Israel's three-man War Cabinet, indicated some flexibility. "We will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators," he said.

At the same time, he warned that the Israeli army "is preparing the continuation of intense ground operations."

Benny Gantz, who sits on the War Cabinet with Gallant and Netanyahu, has said that if there is no hostage deal, Israel will launch a ground offensive into Gaza's southernmost town, Rafah, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

A top Hamas official, meanwhile, voiced hope for "lots of breakthroughs" in the near future.

The U.S. has urged Israel not to invade Rafah -- believed to be Hamas' last major stronghold -- without a plan to protect civilians. Kirby said that McGurk was pressing the Israelis for details on their "thinking" about the operation.

Both the Western diplomat and an Egyptian official said they have seen "encouraging" signs from Israel and Hamas.

The Egyptian official said Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. would craft a renewed proposal at the talks in Paris, expected on Friday or Saturday.

He said mediators managed to water down demands of both sides, including the number of Palestinian prisoners Israel would release in return for women and elderly hostages during a preliminary six-week cease-fire. He said "the discussions are encouraging."

  photo  Mourners gather around the grave of Staff Sgt. Simon Shlomov during his funeral Thursday in Rishon Lezion, Israel. Shlomov, 20, was killed during Israel’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army has been battling Palestinian militants in the war ignited by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack into Israel. More photos at arkansasonline.com/gazaweek20/. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
 
 


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