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Israel, Hamas skirmish in Gaza as truce efforts pick up pace

Published 02/25/2024, 05:19 AM
Updated 02/26/2024, 04:32 AM
© Reuters. Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this undated handout picture released on February 24, 2024. Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS

By Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/CAIRO (Reuters) -Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen clashed throughout the Gaza Strip over the weekend, as mediators picked up the pace of talks on a possible ceasefire to free hostages held by Hamas and bring a measure of Ramadan respite to the battered enclave.

Prospects for securing any truce looked uncertain, however, with Israel saying it was, in parallel, planning to expand its sweep to destroy Hamas, while the Islamist faction stood firm on its demand for a permanent end to the nearly five-month-old war.

Residents said Israeli forces shelled several areas of the enclave as tanks rolled into Beit Lahiya and soldiers and gunmen waged running battles in the Zeitoun sector of Gaza City - both in the north, which had been conquered early in the offensive.

At least 86 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes since Saturday, medics said on Sunday. Israel's military said two soldiers died in fighting in south Gaza and that its forces killed or captured Palestinian gunmen in Zeitoun and elsewhere.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his war cabinet for a briefing late on Saturday by intelligence chiefs who returned from a meeting with Qatari, Egyptian and U.S. mediators in Paris about a possible second Gaza ceasefire.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN's "State of the Union" that negotiators for the United States, Egypt, Qatar and Israel "came to an understanding" on the basic contours of a hostage deal during talks in Paris.

The deal is still under negotiation, said Sullivan, who added there will have to be indirect discussions by Qatar and Egypt with Hamas.

Netanyahu told CBS' "Face the Nation" it was not clear yet whether a hostage deal would materialize from the talks, declining to discuss specifics but saying Hamas needed to make more reasonable demands.

"They're in another planet. But if they come down to a reasonable situation, then yes we'll have a hostage deal. I hope so," he said.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Netanyahu's comments cast doubt over Israel's willingness to secure a deal.

"Netanyahu's comments show he is not concerned about reaching an agreement," Abu Zuhri told Reuters, accusing the Israeli leader of wanting "to pursue negotiation under bombardment and the bloodshed (of Palestinians)".

DOHA TALKS THIS WEEK

Egyptian security sources said there would be more talks this week in Doha, with mediators shuttling between Hamas and Israeli delegates, and a follow-up round in Cairo. There was no immediate confirmation of that from Israel, Hamas or Qatar.

The first pause in fighting, in November, saw the release of around half of the 253 people Hamas seized during an Oct. 7 cross-border killing spree that sparked the war. In that deal, Israel freed three times the number of Palestinians from its security prisons and admitted more humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Israeli media, citing unnamed officials, reported there was a framework for the return of around a third of the 130 remaining hostages over a six-week truce covering the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. There was no formal confirmation from either side.

Palestinian officials said Hamas was insisting on Israel calling off the offensive and withdrawing forces under any deal. Israel signalled intent to move into one of the last towns where Hamas, which is sworn to its destruction, has intact forces.

"We are working to achieve another framework for the release of our abductees, as well as the completion of the elimination of the Hamas battalions in Rafah," Netanyahu said on Facebook (NASDAQ:META), referring to the town in the far south of Gaza near the border with Egypt.

This week, he added, the Israeli security cabinet would approve military plans for Rafah - including the evacuation of more than a million displaced Palestinian civilians who have been sheltering there, and whose fate worries world powers.

© Reuters. Israeli soldiers operate amid the ruins of buildings, at a location given as the Gaza Strip, during the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this still image taken from undated handout video released on February 26, 2024. Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY

Those plans were presented by the military late on Sunday to Netanyahu's small-forum war cabinet. The war cabinet also approved a plan to facilitate more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, Netanyahu's office said.

Almost 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, Gaza medical officials say. The Hamas raid of Oct. 7 killed 1,200 people in Israel, which has also lost 241 soldiers in Gaza ground fighting that followed, according to official tallies.

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