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Israel faces growing pressure over Gaza ceasefire

Israel faced growing international pressure Tuesday to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas, as it prepared for an incursion into the crowded southern Gaza city of Rafah where more than a million Palestinians are trapped.


CIA director William Burns met Mossad chief David Barnea in Cairo for talks on a Qatari-brokered plan to temporarily halt fighting in exchange for Hamas freeing hostages.

The negotiations, which also involved Qatar’s prime minister and Egyptian officials, were “positive” and would continue for three more days, said Egypt’s Al-Qahera News, citing a senior Egyptian official.

A day after Israeli forces rescued two hostages from Gaza, the families of the remaining captives made an emotional plea to Barnea and the Israeli delegation ahead of the Cairo talks: “Do not return until everyone comes home — the living and the dead.”

The Israeli campaign group, Hostages and Missing Families Forum, has urged the government to exhaust every option to return some 130 hostages still believed to be in Gaza. Israel says 29 of them are presumed dead.

The group called it a “once-in-a-lifetime mission” and said they must “not return without a deal”.

Militants took about 250 people hostage in an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

At least 28,473 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground offensive in Hamas-run Gaza since then, according to the health ministry in the Palestinian territory.

The Cairo meeting came after the United States and United Nations warned Israel against a ground offensive into Rafah without a plan to protect civilians, who say they have nowhere left to go.

With Rafah on edge, some residents began dismantling makeshift tents and prepared to move on again.

“We are sleeping in the street, (the tent) doesn’t have a roof, it’s made of nylon — if it gets hit by a missile, you will die instantly,” said Gazan Fayez Abed.

After White House talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Monday, US President Joe Biden said civilians in Rafah “need to be protected”, calling them “exposed and vulnerable”.

King Abdullah pushed for a “lasting ceasefire”, warning that an Israeli attack on Rafah would “produce another humanitarian catastrophe”.

– ‘We want to be ready’ –

After rejecting Hamas’s terms for a truce last week, Israel conducted a pre-dawn raid in Rafah on Monday that freed two hostages — Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Luis Har, 70 — and killed around 100 people.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the operation as “perfect”, while the Palestinian foreign ministry called the deaths of dozens of Gazans a “massacre”.

The rare rescue mission came hours after Netanyahu spoke with Biden, who reiterated his opposition to a major assault on Rafah.

But Netanyahu said “complete victory” cannot be achieved without eliminating Hamas’s last battalions there.

The United States has angered some Middle East allies by repeatedly refusing to back a full ceasefire, with Washington saying it supports Israel’s drive to eradicate Hamas and calling for shorter pauses with hostage-prisoner swaps instead.

A Hamas official told AFP they were waiting for the outcome of the Cairo meeting but were “open to discussing any initiative that achieves an end to aggression and war”.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have sought refuge in Rafah, pressed up against the Egypt border in makeshift camps where they face outbreaks of hepatitis and diarrhoea and a scarcity of food and water.

AFP saw some families, already displaced several times, dismantling their tents and leaving in cars, vans or using horse-drawn carts.

– No safe place –

Netanyahu has said Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave, but foreign governments, Gazans and aid groups have questioned where they could go.

“There is no place that is currently safe in Gaza,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

A report in the Wall Street Journal said Israel was proposing to create 15 campsites of around 25,000 tents each in southwestern Gaza as part of an evacuation plan.

It cited Egyptian officials saying the camps and field hospitals would be installed and administered by Egypt, although there has been no confirmation.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned Israel’s planned military push into Rafah “could lead to slaughter”.

As smoke was seen rising over Rafah, Al Jazeera said two of its journalists were severely wounded in an Israeli strike there.

Two other journalists with the broadcaster have been killed in the war, and its Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh was wounded.

Israel’s military said Tuesday three more soldiers had been killed in Gaza, taking its losses to 232 since ground operations began on October 27.

It also said its forces had killed more than 30 “terrorists” in Khan Yunis — southern Gaza’s largest city that has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks.

On a visit to the Gaza border, army chief Herzi Halevi said Israel’s military was “preparing for the fighting to continue for a long time”.

“If we do not continue to strike Hamas with determination, it will be difficult to bring back the hostages,” he said.

Israel’s military released a video Tuesday it said was from a security camera and showed Gaza’s Hamas chief and family members in a tunnel on October 10.

“The footage shows leader of Hamas and mass murderer, Yahya Sinwar, fleeing with his children and one of his wives,” army spokesman Daniel Hagari said. AFP was unable to independently verify the footage.

The war’s impact has been felt widely, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas surging across the Middle East.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah has traded near-daily fire with Israel since the war began.

On Tuesday the head of the Iran-backed movement, Hassan Nasrallah, said the cross-border fire would stop only “when the attack on Gaza stops”.

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