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Hamas leader visits Cairo, a sign of movement on possible Gaza truce and hostage swap

Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, Dec. 20.
Hatem Ali
/
AP
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, Dec. 20.

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Hamas' top leader traveled to Cairo on Wednesday for talks on the war in Gaza, part of a flurry of diplomacy aimed at securing another cease-fire and hostage swap at a moment when the militant group is putting up stiff resistance to Israel's offensive.

Ismail Haniyeh's visit came a day after Hamas fired rockets that set off air raid sirens in central Israel, a show of strength during a 10-week war that has devastated much of northern Gaza, killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians, and driven some 1.9 million — nearly 85% of the population — from their homes.

Israel has called on the rest of the world to blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organization, saying it must be eradicated in the wake of its Oct. 7 rampage across southern Israel that triggered the war.

But the sides have recently relaunched indirect talks, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, aimed at instituting another cease-fire and freeing more hostages captured in that attack in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Mobile phone and internet service was down across Gaza again on Wednesday, an outage that could complicate efforts to communicate with Hamas' leaders inside the territory who went into hiding after Oct. 7.

A wide gap in talks on hostages

Despite a burst of activity by high-level officials in recent days, the two sides appeared to be far from an agreement.

Hamas has said no more hostages will be released until the war ends, and is expected to insist on the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including high-level militants, for the captives that remain — demands Israel has thus far rejected.

In this photo released by Lebanese government, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, speaks during a press conference in Baabda, east of Beirut, in 2021. Hamas said Wednesday that Haniyeh arrived in Cairo for talks on the war in Gaza.
Dalati Nohra / AP
/
AP
In this photo released by Lebanese government, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, speaks during a press conference in Baabda, east of Beirut, in 2021. Hamas said Wednesday that Haniyeh arrived in Cairo for talks on the war in Gaza.

Egypt, along with Qatar, helped mediate a weeklong cease-fire in November in which Hamas freed over 100 hostages in exchange for Israel's release of 240 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas and other militants are still holding an estimated 129 captives.

Hamas said that Haniyeh — who is believed to be based in Qatar but whose movements are rarely publicized — would discuss the war with Egyptian officials, without providing more details.

Ziad Nakhaleh, the leader of the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, which took part in the Oct. 7 attack and is also holding hostages, said he had also been invited to Egypt for talks and would travel there in the coming days.

Egypt, which borders Gaza, is deeply concerned about a potential influx of Palestinian refugees, fearing Israel will not allow them to return.

Israel says "final clearing" underway in the north of Gaza

At least 46 people were killed and more than 100 wounded early Wednesday as Israel continued to bombard the urban Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City, according to Munir al-Bursh, a senior Health Ministry official.

In southern Gaza, several women and children were among those brought into Nasser Hospital in the city of Khan Younis after strikes overnight and into Wednesday. A boy could be seen sobbing next to his wounded mother, who was laid out on a stretcher, before being lifted up and placed on her chest.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday that Israeli forces were entering Hamas' tunnel network in northern Gaza as part of a "final clearing" of militants from the region. The densely built urban north — including Gaza City, the territory's largest — has seen ferocious fighting, with Palestinian health officials reporting dozens of people killed in bombardment in recent days.

Gallant said that in southern Gaza, where the military launched a ground incursion focused on Khan Younis in early December, operations will take "months."

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Tuesday the death toll since the start of the war had risen to more than 19,600. It does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths.

Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the Oct. 7 attack.

Israel's military says 134 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive. Israel says it has killed some 7,000 militants, without providing evidence, and blames civilian deaths on Hamas, saying it uses them as human shields when it fights in residential areas.

UN members are pushing for an aid resolution

U.N. Security Council members are negotiating an Arab-sponsored resolution to halt the fighting in some way to allow for an increase in desperately needed humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza. A vote on the resolution, first scheduled for Monday, was pushed back again until Wednesday as talks continued in the hopes of getting the U.S. to abstain or vote "yes" on the resolution after it vetoed an earlier cease-fire call.

France, the United Kingdom and Germany — some of Israel's closest allies — joined global calls for a cease-fire over the weekend. In Israel, protesters have called for negotiations with Hamas to facilitate the release of scores of hostages still held by the group.

Israel says it will keep fighting until it has removed Hamas from power, dismantled its armed wing and returned all the hostages. U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has called on Israel to take greater steps to spare civilians but has continued to provide diplomatic and military support for the offensive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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