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Israeli officials to meet over proposed pause in Gaza fighting

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said he will convene the Cabinet early next week to ‘approve the operational plans for action in Rafah’.

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Destroyed residential buildings in Rafah

Israeli officials will meet later to discuss the next steps after the latest talks with the United States, Egypt and Qatar in search of a deal on pausing the fighting in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.

But Mr Netanyahu announced that he will convene the Cabinet early next week to “approve the operational plans for action in Rafah”, including the evacuation of civilians.

Despite widespread warnings from the international community about an Israeli military ground operation in the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population now shelters, Mr Netanyahu’s statement said that “only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations” would achieve Israel’s aims in the war.

A senior official from Egypt, which along with Qatar is a mediator between Israel and the Hamas militant group, said mediators were waiting for Israel’s official response to a draft deal that includes the release of up to 40 women and older hostages held in Gaza in return for up to 300 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, mostly women, minors and older people.

Israel Palestinians Rafah Photo Gallery
Buildings destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP)

The Egyptian official said the proposed six-week pause in fighting would include allowing hundreds of aid trucks to enter Gaza every day, including the northern half of the besieged territory. He said that both sides agreed to continue negotiations during the pause for further releases and a permanent ceasefire.

Negotiators face an unofficial deadline of the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan around March 10.

Hamas political official Osama Hamdan noted that the group was not at the talks, but asserted to reporters in Beirut on Friday that Israel had refused its main demands, including stopping the “aggression” and withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.

The Health Ministry in Gaza said on Saturday that the bodies of 92 Palestinians killed in Israeli bombardments were brought to hospitals over the past 24 hours, raising the overall toll in nearly five months of war to 29,606. The total number of wounded rose to nearly 70,000.

The ministry’s death toll does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but it has said that two thirds of those killed were children and women. Israel says its troops have killed more than 10,000 Hamas fighters, but has not provided details.

An Israeli air strike hit a house in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, killing at least eight people. including four women and a child, health authorities said. An Associated Press journalist saw the bodies at a hospital.

Israel Palestinians Rafah Photo Gallery
Palestinians line up for food aid in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Meanwhile, Brazil’s president has claimed that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, doubling down on harsh rhetoric after stirring controversy a week ago by comparing Israel’s military offensive in Gaza to the Nazi Holocaust in which six million Jews and others perished during the Second World War.

Israel has pushed back against genocide claims made at the UN’s top court and elsewhere, saying its war targets the militant group Hamas, not the Palestinian people.

It has held Hamas responsible for civilian deaths, arguing that the group operates from civilian areas.

“What the Israeli government is doing is not war, it is genocide,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Children and women are being murdered.”

In response to his initial comments, Israel declared him a persona non grata, summoned Brazil’s ambassador and demanded an apology. The president then recalled Brazil’s ambassador to Israel for consultations.

Last month, South Africa filed a landmark case with the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians. The court issued a preliminary order two weeks later, ordering Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza.

The president of Brazil
The president of Brazil claimed that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Israel, created in part as a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, has accused South Africa of hypocrisy. South Africa has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with the treatment of black South Africans during apartheid, framing the issues as fundamentally about people oppressed in their homeland.

Israel declared war after the deadly October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people and took around 250 hostages. More than 100 hostages remain in captivity in Gaza.

The rising civilian death toll and worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza have amplified calls for a ceasefire. Hunger and infectious diseases are spreading and about 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced, with about 1.4 million crowded into Rafah on the border with Egypt.

“There are choking, skyrocketing prices. It’s terrifying. There is no source of income. The area is very overcrowded,” said Hassan Attwa, a displaced man from Gaza City who now shelters in a tent on the sand in Mawasi in the south.

“The garbage, may God bless you, is not collected at all. It stays piled up. It turns into a mess and clay when it rains. The situation is disastrous in every sense of the word.”

Mr Netanyahu has vowed to fight until “total victory”, but dispatched the delegation to Paris to seek the release of hostages in exchange for a temporary truce.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Negotiators face wide gaps and an unofficial deadline – the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan around March 10.

Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu and his conservative government drew an angry response from the United States, its closest ally, over plans to build more than 3,300 new homes in settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu’s firebrand finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has said the plans came in response to a Palestinian shooting attack earlier in the week that killed one Israeli and wounded five.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Friday that he was “disappointed” to hear of the Israeli announcement.

“It’s been long-standing US policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike that new settlements are counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace,” he said. “They’re also inconsistent with international law.”

The Biden administration also restored a US legal finding dating back nearly 50 years that Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are “illegitimate” under international law.

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