Mideast Cease-Fire Efforts Gain Steam As Us Envoy Visits. Mediators Report 'eNcouraging' Signs

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Fe. 22, 2024(AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Fe. 22, 2024(AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — International efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas appeared to gain new momentum Thursday as the White House said a visit by a senior envoy with Israeli leaders was “going well” and other mediators reported encouraging signs from the warring parties.

The new signs of progress came ahead of an expected summit this weekend in Paris, where mediators plan to present a new proposal. The U.S., Egypt and Qatar have been struggling for weeks to find a formula that could halt Israel’s devastating offensive in Gaza, but now face an unofficial deadline as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.

White House Mideast envoy Brett McGurk held talks throughout the day with Israeli leaders and families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

“The initial indications we’re getting from Brett are these discussions are going well,” said White House spokesman John Kirby.

A Western diplomat involved in the efforts said both sides want a pause. “What we have heard from our partners is that they are willing to give concessions,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door diplomacy. “Time is pressing them.”

In new fighting, Israeli strikes killed over 70 people in southern and central Gaza, Palestinian health officials said.

Tensions were also rising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on morning traffic at a highway checkpoint, killing one man and wounding five others, Israeli police said.

Israel declared war after Hamas militants stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive has left over 29,000 Palestinians dead, caused widespread destruction, displaced an estimated 80% of Gaza’s population and fueled a humanitarian disaster.

Roughly half of the hostages were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November. About 100 hostages remain in captivity, in addition to the bodies of 30 others who were killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity.

Israel is demanding the release of the remaining hostages as part of any pause but has vowed to press ahead with the offensive until Hamas’ military and governing capabilities are destroyed. Hamas wants an end to the war, a full withdrawal of troops and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners Israel is holding.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the Hamas demands as “delusional.” But in recent days, Israeli leaders have begun to voice cautious optimism and Hamas has signaled it is softening its demands.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Israel’s three-man War Cabinet, indicated some flexibility. “We will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators,” he said.

At the same time, he warned that the Israeli army “is preparing the continuation of intense ground operations.”

Benny Gantz, who sits on the War Cabinet with Gallant and Netanyahu, has said that if there is no hostage deal, Israel will launch a ground offensive into Gaza’s southernmost town, Rafah, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

A top Hamas official, meanwhile, voiced hope for “lots of breakthroughs” in the near future.

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is crowded into Rafah after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the territory. Israel has said it will evacuate them before attacking. But it is not clear where they would go, with much of the rest of the tiny Mediterranean enclave consumed in combat.

The U.S. has urged Israel not to invade Rafah – believed to be Hamas’ last major stronghold – without a plan to protect civilians. Kirby said that McGurk was pressing the Israelis for details.

The foreign ministers of 26 European countries on Thursday called for a pause in fighting leading to a longer cease-fire.

CEASE-FIRE

Both the Western diplomat and an Egyptian official said they have seen “encouraging” signs from Israel and Hamas.

The Egyptian official said Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. would craft a renewed proposal at the talks in Paris, expected on Friday or Saturday.

He said mediators managed to water down demands of both sides, including the number of Palestinian prisoners Israel would release in return for women and elderly hostages during a preliminary six-week cease-fire. He said “the discussions are encouraging.”

He said another sticking point is whether displaced Palestinians could return to their homes in northern Gaza. He said Israel, which is still battling in areas of the north, was showing flexibility.

He also said both sides agreed to continue indirect negotiations for a permanent cease-fire – something Israeli officials in public have ruled out.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, said the negotiations were focused on “our people.” He called for Palestinians to be allowed to return to their homes in northern Gaza and a “redeployment” of Israeli forces from residential areas.

“If this is achieved, things can move on an excellent and good way,” he said. “Therefore we say there might be lots of breakthroughs in the near future.”

Israeli media said the War Cabinet agreed late Thursday to send a delegation to the Paris talks.

WEST BANK SHOOTING AND RAMADAN TENSIONS

Thursday’s shooting came at a checkpoint on a West Bank highway where the gunmen opened fire on cars in the morning rush-hour traffic jam. An Israeli man in his 20s was killed and five others wounded, including a pregnant woman. Security forces killed two of the gunmen and detained the third, police said.

Hamas praised the attack in Jerusalem and said it was a “natural response” to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and raids in the West Bank. But the militant group did not claim responsibility for the attack.

Tensions are rising in the West Bank ahead of Ramadan, which in the past has seen increased clashes, often in connection to restrictions imposed on Palestinian worshippers going to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City during the holy month.

Israel’s hardline national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has called for tight restrictions on Muslim prayers this year. But no final decisions have been made.

Tempers are likely to be even more volatile this year over the Gaza war and spiraling violence in the West Bank.

Late Thursday, the Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank said one man was killed and 15 wounded, two critically, in an Israeli attack on a car in the Jenin refugee camp. The Israeli military had no immediate comment, but it often operates in the area in what it says is a crackdown on militants.

BOMBARDMENT CONTINUES

Late Thursday, Palestinian health officials said at least 27 people were killed in airstrikes in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. Ambulances rushed victims to the Al-Aqsa Martrys' Hospital.

A small child was rushed into the hospital on a stretcher, while a youth, covered in black soot, was treated as he sat on the floor in the entrance of the building.

Strikes in central and southern Gaza earlier Thursday had killed at least 48, including 14 children and 8 women, according to hospital officials there.

Gaza’s Health Ministry, meanwhile, said Israeli forces have repositioned around southern Gaza’s largest hospital – a week after storming into the facility in what Israel said was a search for signs of Israeli hostages.

The ministry said Israeli forces had moved out of the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, but were effectively besieging it and restricting movement for staff and patients. The complex is now grappling with severe shortages, including a lack of drinking water, food, electricity, oxygen, and necessary medical supplies, it said.

The Israeli military said that troops were no longer in the hospital, but that the area remained “an active battle zone.”

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Shurafa reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Magdy reported from Cairo. AP correspondent Zeke Miller in Washington contributed reporting.