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WORLD

Cease-Fire Talks with Israel and Hamas Expected to Restart

CAIRO  — Stalled talks aimed at securing a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas are expected to restart in earnest in Qatar as soon as Sunday, according to Egyptian officials.

The talks would mark the first time both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders joined the indirect negotiations since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. International mediators had hoped to secure a six-week truce before Ramadan started earlier this week, but Hamas refused any deal that wouldn’t lead to a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, a demand Israel rejected.

In recent days, however, both sides have made moves aimed at getting the talks, which never fully broke off, back on track.

Hamas gave mediators a new proposal for a three-stage plan that would end the fighting, according to two Egyptian officials, one who is involved in the talks and a second who was briefed on them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the contents of the sensitive discussions.

The first stage would be a six-week cease-fire that would include the release of 35 hostages — women, those who are ill and older people — being held by militants in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel.

In this photo provided by the Israeli Army, a ship transporting humanitarian aid from the World Central Kitchen (WCK) organization, led by the United Arab Emirates, arrives in the Gaza Strip’s maritime space, Friday, March 15, 2024. The Israeli military says a ship has delivered 200 tons of food, water and humanitarian supplies to Gaza, inaugurating a sea route from Cyprus. The sea route is intended to bring more assistance to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the enclave five months into the war between Israel and Hamas. (Israeli Army via AP)

Hamas would also release at least five female soldiers in exchange for 50 prisoners, including some serving long sentences on terror charges, for each soldier. Israeli forces would withdraw from two main roads in Gaza, let displaced Palestinians return to north Gaza, which has been devastated by the fighting, and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the officials said.

Nearly one in three children under 2 years old in the isolated north are suffering acute malnutrition, UNICEF reported Friday.

In the second phase, the two sides would declare a permanent cease-fire and Hamas would free the remaining Israeli soldiers held hostage in exchange for more prisoners, the officials said.

In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the bodies it’s holding in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza and allowing reconstruction to start, the officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the proposal “unrealistic.” However, he agreed to send Israeli negotiators to Qatar for more talks.

Those talks were expected to resume Sunday afternoon, though they could get pushed to Monday, the Egyptian officials said.

Netanyahu’s government has rejected calls for a permanent cease-fire, insisting it must first fulfill its stated goal of “annihilating Hamas.” Netanyahu’s office also said Friday he approved military plans to attack Rafah, the southernmost town in Gaza where some 1.4 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

The United States and other countries have warned such an operation could be disastrous, but Israel says it plans to push ahead to destroy Hamas battalions stationed there.

Many Palestinians fled to Rafah when Israel began attacking Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and left another 250 hostage in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s office said the Rafah operation would involve the evacuation of the civilian population, but did not give details or a timetable. The military said Wednesday it planned to direct civilians to “humanitarian islands” in central Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday: “We have to see a clear and implementable plan” to safeguard innocent people in Rafah from an Israeli incursion.

“We have not seen such a plan,” he said.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday that at least 31,553 Palestinians have been killed in the war. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

Israel’s offensive has driven most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes. A quarter of Gaza’s population is starving, according to the United Nations.

As part of the efforts to get desperately needed aid into Gaza, a ship inaugurated a sea route from Cyprus on Friday and offloaded 200 tons of humanitarian supplies sent by the aid group World Central destined for people in northern Gaza.

The group said Saturday it was preparing another vessel in Cyprus with hundreds of tons of Gaza-bound aid that would be accompanied by a second vessel that would help offload the shipment.

On Saturday, Germany joined a group of countries, including the United States and Jordan, conducting airdrops of aid over Gaza. The United States also has announced separate plans to construct a pier to get aid in.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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