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Hamas delegation heads to Cairo for truce talks

Hanoi – Hamas said its delegation was heading to Cairo on Saturday to resume Gaza truce talks, as the United Nations warned that Israel’s threatened assault on the city of Rafah could produce a “bloodbath”.

Foreign mediators have been waiting for the Palestinian militant group to respond to a proposal to halt fighting for 40 days and exchange hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

“The only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday. 

Months of negotiations have stalled in part on Hamas’s demand for a lasting ceasefire and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated vows to crush the group’s remaining fighters in Rafah.

Blinken on Friday also reiterated Washington’s objections to the long-threatened Rafah offensive, saying Israel has not presented a plan to protect the civilians sheltering there.

“Absent such a plan, we can’t support a major military operation going into Rafah because the damage it would do is beyond what’s acceptable,” he said.

Humanitarian groups and the United Nations have also begged Israel to call off an attack on Rafah, where 1.2 million people have sought refuge.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Friday that an incursion into the far-southern city could have dire implications.

“WHO is deeply concerned that a full-scale military operation in Rafah, Gaza, could lead to a bloodbath, and further weaken an already broken health system,” Tedros said on X, formerly Twitter.

The UN’s health agency announced it was nevertheless making contingency plans, restoring health facilities and pre-positioning supplies.

“This contingency plan is Band-Aids,” said Rik Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the Palestinian territories.

“The ailing health system will not be able to withstand the potential scale of devastation that the incursion will cause.”

– ‘Positive spirit’ –

A senior Hamas official confirmed to AFP that a delegation led by Khalil al-Hayya, deputy head of the group’s political arm in Gaza, would arrive in Cairo on Saturday morning.

The Palestinian militant group, which has been in power in the Gaza Strip since 2007, maintains it is considering the latest truce proposal with a “positive spirit”.

But a top Hamas official accused Netanyahu of trying to derail the latest proposed Gaza truce with his threats to keep fighting with or without a deal.

“Netanyahu was the obstructionist of all previous rounds of dialogue… and it is clear that he still is,” senior Hamas official Hossam Badran told AFP by telephone.

Badran said Netanyahu’s insistence on attacking Rafah was calculated to “thwart any possibility of concluding an agreement” in the negotiations.

US news site Axios reported that CIA director William Burns arrived in Egypt on Friday night.

The United States, along with Egypt and Qatar, has been trying to seal a ceasefire deal in the nearly seven-month-old war.

During the last truce, over one week in November, 80 Israeli hostages were exchanged for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Egyptian sources told the Wall Street Journal that Israel would give the truce talks another week, failing which it would launch its long-threatened Rafah offensive.

– Campus protests wane –

Global criticism of the war’s spiralling toll on civilians in Gaza has escalated, as have calls for Hamas to release the remaining hostages.

The war broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also took around 250 hostages, of whom Israel estimates 128 remain in Gaza, including 35 believed to be dead.

Israel’s devastating retaliatory campaign has killed at least 34,622 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Pro-Palestinian protests that have fanned across US universities for weeks were more muted Friday after a series of clashes with police, mass arrests and a stern White House directive to restore order.

Similar demonstrations have spread to campuses in Britain, France, Mexico, Australia and elsewhere.

Rafah resident Sanaa Zoorob said Friday an Israeli strike on the family’s home killed her sister and six of her nieces and nephews.

Two of the children “were found in pieces in their mother’s embrace”, Zoorob said.

“We don’t want aid, we want a permanent ceasefire and a full withdrawal from Gaza,”

– Famine threat remains –

Israel’s siege has pushed many of Gaza’s 2.4 million people to the brink of famine.

US pressure has prompted Israel to facilitate more aid deliveries to Gaza, including through the reopened Erez crossing that leads directly into the hardest-hit north.

Food availability has improved “a little bit”, according to WHO representative Peeperkorn.

But he warned that the threat of famine had “absolutely not” gone away.

Five Israeli human rights groups that took Israel to court over restrictions on aid to Gaza said the state’s insistence that it has met its obligations was “incomprehensible”.

The government had told the supreme court that the steps it had taken went “above and beyond” its obligations under international law.

Gisha and four other Israeli non-profit organisations retorted that the shortages evident inside Gaza indicated “the respondents are not meeting their obligations, not to the required extent nor at the necessary speed”.

The US-based charity World Central Kitchen resumed operations this week, after suspending them in the aftermath of Israeli drone strikes that killed seven of its staff as they unloaded aid in Gaza on April 1.

World Central Kitchen was involved in an effort earlier this year to establish a new maritime aid corridor to Gaza from Cyprus to help compensate for dwindling deliveries by land from Israel.

The project suffered a new blow Friday when the US military announced high winds had forced troops working to assemble a temporary aid pier off the Gaza coast to relocate to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

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