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Mediator says talks on Gaza not ‘progressing as expected’ after momentum in recent weeks

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Talks on a potential ceasefire deal in Gaza “have not been progressing as expected” in the past few days after good progress in recent weeks, key mediator Qatar said Saturday, as Israel’s prime minister accused the Hamas militant group of not changing its ”delusional” demands.
Speaking during the Munich Security Conference, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdurrahman Al Thani, noted difficulties in the “humanitarian part” of the negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure to bring home remaining hostages taken in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, said he sent a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo earlier in the week at US President Joe Biden’s request but doesn’t see the point in sending them again.
Hamas wants a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and the release of Palestinians held by Israel.
Netanyahu also pushed back against international concern about a planned Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, a city on southern Gaza’s border with Egypt. He said “total victory” against Hamas requires the offensive, once people living there evacuate to safe areas. Where they will go in largely devastated Gaza is not clear.
New airstrikes in central Gaza on Saturday killed more than 40 people, including children, and wounded at least 50, according to Associated Press journalists and hospital officials. Israel’s military said it carried out strikes there against Hamas.
Five people were killed in an Israeli airstrike that targeted a house outside Khan Younis in the south, according to health officials, and another five people, including three children, were killed in an airstrike on a building north of Rafah. Dr. Marwan Al-Hams, director of Abu Yousef Al-Najjar Hospital, said other bodies were being pulled from the rubble.
Israel’s air and ground offensive was triggered by the Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 people in Israel and took 250 others hostage.
The Gaza Health Ministry on Saturday raised the overall death toll in Gaza to 28,858, saying the bodies of 83 people killed in Israeli bombardments were brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The count does not differentiate between combatants and civilians, but the ministry says two-thirds of those killed are women and children.
The war also has caused widespread destruction, displaced some 80 percent of Gaza’s population and sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-run enclave.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, which Israel portrays as the last significant stronghold of Hamas fighters.
US President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to carry out an operation there without a “credible” plan to protect civilians and to instead focus on a ceasefire. Egypt has said an operation could threaten diplomatic relations.
Israel has said it has no plans to force Palestinians into Egypt. New satellite photos, however, indicate that Egypt is preparing for that scenario. The images show Egypt building a wall and leveling land near its border with Gaza.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who also spoke at the Munich Security Conference, said “it is not our intention to provide any safe areas or facilities, but … we will provide the support to the innocent civilians, if that was to take place.”
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi affirmed during a call with France’s leader that Egypt categorical rejected “the displacement of Palestinians to Egypt in any way, shape or form,” according to El-Sisi’s office.
Two senior Egyptian officials said Egypt is building additional defensive lines in an existing buffer zone that extends 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the border. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details with the media.
The buffer zone, built as part of Egypt’s battle against an Daesh group insurgency, was meant to prevent weapons smuggling to and from Gaza.
Israel has not presented specific evidence for its claim that Hamas is diverting UN aid, and its targeted killings of Gaza police commanders guarding truck convoys have made it “virtually impossible” to distribute the goods safely, a top US envoy said in rare public criticism of Israel.
David Satterfield, the Biden administration’s special Middle East envoy for humanitarian issues, said criminal gangs are increasingly targeting the convoys following the departure of police escorts after Israeli strikes.
“We are working with the Israeli government, the Israeli military in seeing what solutions can be found here because everyone wants to see the assistance continue,” Satterfield told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Friday. A solution “is going to require some form of security escorts to return.”
Satterfield said Israeli officials have not presented “specific evidence of diversion or theft” of UN assistance, but that the militants have their own interests in using “other channels of assistance … to shape where and to whom assistance goes.”
Israel has alleged repeatedly that Hamas is diverting aid, including fuel, after it enters Gaza, a claim denied by UN aid agencies. Last week, an Israeli airstrike on a car killed three senior police commanders in Rafah. Two officers were killed in another strike.
Satterfield also addressed challenges for the main UN agency aiding Palestinians in Gaza, whose director accused Israel in remarks published Saturday of trying to “destroy” the organization and warned that its operations will halt in April without more support.
In recent weeks, Israel’s military has focused on Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city and a Hamas stronghold.
The army said Saturday that it had arrested 100 suspected Hamas militants at the city’s Nasser Hospital. Israel’s defense minister has said at least 20 of those detained were involved in the Oct. 7 attack.
The Health Ministry said troops turned the hospital into “military barracks” and detained a large number of medical staff. Israel says it does not target patients or doctors, but staff say the facility is struggling under heavy fire.
Nour Abou Jameh was among the thousands sheltering at Nasser Hospital who were forced to leave in the past week. “Shooting and shelling was coming from all directions,” Jameh said. “When we left at night, bodies were in the streets, and even tanks moved on them and crushed them.”

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