Israel and Hamas working toward new truce, hostage deal


Hopes rose Wednesday that Israel and Hamas may be inching toward another truce and hostage release deal in the Gaza war, following secret talks and as the head of the Palestinian militant group visited Egypt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Tuesday told relatives of some of the remaining 129 captives held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks that his spy chief was working on efforts to "free our hostages".

"I have just sent the head of Mossad to Europe twice to promote a process to free our hostages," the premier told them. "I will spare no effort on the subject, and our duty is to bring them all back."

Mossad director David Barnea held a "positive meeting" in Warsaw this week with CIA chief Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, a source familiar with the talks told AFP, asking not to be named.

Talks were ongoing "with the aim of reaching an agreement around the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza in exchange for a truce and the potential release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons," said the source.

The Qatar-based chief of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, on Wednesday travelled to Egypt, traditionally a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, for talks with intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

A source close to Hamas, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks would focus on stopping the war and "to prepare an agreement for the release of prisoners (and) the end of the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip".

President Isaac Herzog also said Israel was "ready for another humanitarian pause and additional humanitarian aid in order to enable the release of hostages".

Another Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, released video footage it claimed showed two hostages, ramping up pressure on Israel.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war began when Hamas attacked on October 7, killing around 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and abducting about 250, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel launched a military campaign that Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry says has killed 19,667 people, mostly women and children, while also cutting off most water, food and power supplies.

Qatar last month helped broker a first week-long truce in which 80 Israeli hostages were freed in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

The source close to Hamas said the Egypt talks would focus on proposals including a week-long truce that would see the release of 40 Israeli hostages, including women, children and male non-combatants.

Haniyeh, before leaving Qatar, met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, but no details of their meeting were released.

- UN vote expected -

Fighting raged unabated Wednesday in Gaza, where the Israeli army reported close quarter combat and more than 300 strikes over the past day, while the death toll among its own forces rose to 134 inside Gaza.

It said "ground, aerial and naval operations were carried out on dozens of terrorists and terrorist infrastructure" including rocket launch sites and military command and control centres in Khan Yunis.

Hamas sources said at least 11 people were killed overnight in Israeli strikes.

In Khan Yunis, residents searched by hand through the rubble of a building completely flattened by bombardment.

The house was "full of people, why did they bomb it? What's the reason?" said one distraught young resident, Amr Sheikh-Deeb.

"We managed to remove some bodies, but where are the rest of them? What did these people do?"

Three corpses lay on the floor of the Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, where wounded people were treated, including children.

One man, Abed Abu Aisha, came in carrying his crying child, both covered in blood and dust.

"A missile hit our house, without any prior notice," he said.

"We pulled out some from under the rubble, but more people are still buried. I don't know the exact number of casualties, but a whole family was wounded."

The UN Security Council was set to vote later Wednesday on a resolution calling for a pause in the conflict, diplomatic sources told AFP, after two previous votes were delayed as members wrangled over wording.

The latest version of the text calls for the "suspension" of hostilities, the sources said.

The US vetoed a previous ceasefire resolution, sparking condemnation by aid groups which urged more action to help civilians caught in the conflict.

- 'On the brink' -

The UN estimates 1.9 million of Gaza's 2.4 million residents have been forced to flee their homes, many sheltering in tents amid dire shortages and the biting winter cold.

"Amid displacement at an unimaginable scale and active hostilities, the humanitarian response system is on the brink," said Tor Wennesland, the UN's special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

Israel, which declared a total siege on Gaza at the start of the war, has since allowed in aid trucks through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and, as of this week, its own Kerem Shalom crossing.

The UN's World Food Progamme said Wednesday it had delivered food through the crossing in a first direct aid convoy from Jordan.

An Israeli military agency, COGAT, said it had also started laying a pipeline from Egypt to deliver drinking water from a mobile desalination plant in a project led by the United Arab Emirates.

But aid groups have warned the humanitarian goods fall far short of the dire need, and the UN children's agency said that "child deaths due to disease could surpass those killed in bombardments".

The Gaza war has sparked fears of regional escalation and seen Israel trade deadly cross-border fire with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, where Israel said its aircraft hit more targets Wednesday.

Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels, meanwhile, have repeatedly fired missiles and drones at vessels passing through the Red Sea that they say are linked to Israel, in a show of support for Palestinians.

The United States this week started to build a multinational naval task force to protect the waterway leading to the Suez Canal, through which more than 10 percent of global trade transits.

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