World

‘Encouraging’ signs in Middle East ceasefire efforts as US envoy visits

The new signs of progress came ahead of a summit this weekend in Paris.

The Israeli offensive has caused widespread destruction (Fatima Shbair/AP)
An Israeli strike destroyed buildings in Rafah The Israeli offensive has caused widespread destruction (Fatima Shbair/AP) (Fatima Shbair/AP)

International efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appear to have gained new momentum 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 a summit this weekend in Paris, where mediators are expected to offer a new proposal.

The US, 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 Middle East envoy Brett McGurk held talks throughout the day with Israeli leaders and families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

At least 70 people have died in overnight strikes in Gaza, officials said (Fatima Shbair/AP)
Palestinians look at air strike damage in Rafah At least 70 people have died in overnight strikes in Gaza, officials said (Fatima Shbair/AP) (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Spokesman John Kirby said the talks were constructive.

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

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. “Time is pressing them.”

In new fighting, Israeli strikes killed more than 70 people in southern and central Gaza, Palestinian health officials said on Thursday.

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

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip (Leo Correa/AP)
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip (Leo Correa/AP) (Leo Correa/AP)

Israel declared war after Hamas militants stormed across the border on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage.

The Israeli offensive has left more than 29,000 Palestinians dead, caused widespread destruction, displaced an estimated 80% of Gaza’s population and fuelled a humanitarian disaster.

Roughly half of the hostages were released during a week-long ceasefire in November. About 100 hostages remain in captivity, in addition to the bodies of 30 others who were killed on October 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’s 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 signalled it is softening its demands.

Defence 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”.

A mosque was among the buildings hit in air strikes in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP)
A mosque was among the buildings hit in air strikes in Rafah A mosque was among the buildings hit in air strikes in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP) (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Benny Gantz, who sits on the War Cabinet with Mr Gallant and Mr 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 and bombardment 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 US has urged Israel not to invade Rafah – believed to be Hamas’s last major stronghold – without a plan to protect civilians. Mr Kirby said that Mr McGurk was pressing the Israelis for details on their “thinking” about the operation.

The heads of 13 UN agencies and five other aid groups issued a joint plea for a ceasefire late Wednesday, warning that an attack on Rafah will bring “mass casualties” and could “deal a death blow” to the humanitarian operation bringing aid to Palestinians.

Earlier this week, the World Food Programme had to halt food deliveries to northern Gaza because of increasing chaos.

If outbreaks of infectious disease, already growing, become severe, they could ultimately cause more deaths than the offensive, a senior official with the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

“Infectious disease is a major concern for us in Gaza,” Richard Brennan, the WHO’s regional emergency director, said at a briefing in Cairo.

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

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 US would craft a renewed proposal at the talks in Paris, expected on Friday or Saturday.

He said mediators managed to water down the 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 ceasefire. 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 ceasefire – something Israeli officials in public have ruled out.