Mediators in Egypt seek truce

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis following Israeli bombardment. Picture: Said Khatib/AFP

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis following Israeli bombardment. Picture: Said Khatib/AFP

Published Mar 5, 2024


Mediators in Cairo on Monday persisted with efforts towards a Gaza truce after Israel’s top ally the US stepped up pressure for a halt in fighting and more aid to enter the besieged Palestinian territory.

Bombardments and combat killed 124 more people within 24 hours, said the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Gaza has been devastated and gripped by dire food shortages in the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel.

Qatari and Egyptian mediators were meeting with US and Hamas envoys – but no Israeli delegates so far – in Cairo for a second day of talks.

They are aiming for a halt in fighting before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan starts on March 10 or 11.

An Egyptian TV channel linked to the intelligence service reported “significant progress” towards a deal without giving further details, while a Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks were continuing. The plan under discussion is for a six-week truce, the exchange of dozens of remaining hostages for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and for more aid to enter Gaza -- but sticking points remain.

Hamas wants Israel to withdraw all its forces, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the army will finish its campaign to destroy Hamas, including in Rafah where about 1.5 million Palestinians have tried to find refuge near Egypt’s border. Israel has also demanded a list of all remaining hostages. It has said it believes 130 of the original 250 captives taken by Hamas remain in Gaza, but that 31 have been killed.

US Vice President Kamala Harris -- whose country provides billions of dollars in military aid to Israel -- called on Sunday for the truce deal to be accepted. She criticised Israel in unusually strong language over insufficient aid deliveries into Gaza. She told Hamas that the group “needs to agree to that deal” while upping the pressure on Israel by stressing that Gazans were starving in “inhumane” conditions and demanding the Netanyahu government “do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”

President Joe Biden faces acute pressure in an election year over his steadfast support for Israel and Gaza’s soaring civilian death toll, which the health ministry there put at 30 534, mostly women and children.

Harris, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, were later set to meet Israel’s former military chief Benny Gantz in Washington.

In a sign of political divisions, David Amsalem, Israel’s minister of regional co-operation, in a post on social media platform X said Gantz’s “entry into government was intended to create unity at a time of emergency, not to be a Trojan horse”.

While diplomacy takes place the war grinds on. Witnesses reported clashes in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighbourhood and the main southern city of Khan Yunis. The Israeli military said continuing operations in Khan Yunis “began with a series of strikes on dozens of targets” and that there was “ongoing air support”.

Earlier it said it carried out “targeted raids” in the area, killed 15 militants over the past day, and detained dozens of suspects linked to Palestinian armed groups. The Hamas government said “dozens of air strikes” and “intense artillery shelling” hit across Gaza.

Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas after its unprecedented attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1 160 people, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Gaza’s hunger crisis came into stark relief last Thursday when more than 100 Palestinians were killed in chaotic scenes around a convoy of aid trucks in Gaza City. Gaza health officials said Israeli forces opened fire into the crowd, while Israel’s army said most victims were trampled to death or hit by trucks in a crush for food. The UN Security Council voiced concern over Gaza’s “alarming levels of acute food insecurity” and urged “unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance”.

Palestinian families have told AFP of eating ground up animal feed and foraged plants, while the health ministry said at least 16 children have died of malnutrition in Gaza’s aid-deprived north. The UN cites “restrictions” as among the factors hindering delivery of food in Gaza, where it is warning of famine.

France’s foreign minister said Israel was “clearly” responsible for aid blockage. King Abdullah II of Jordan called in a meeting with Arab-Israeli politicians for an “immediate ceasefire”, his royal palace said.

The Gaza war has sparked violence across the region. On Monday, a foreign worker in northern Israel was killed and at least seven others wounded in a missile strike near the Lebanese border, Israeli medics said.

Marine security firm Ambrey reported a Liberian-flagged vessel was targeted off Yemen, whose Iran-backed Houthi rebels, saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians, have repeatedly fired on ships in the Red Sea area.