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Gaps Are Narrowing in Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire Talks, Blinken Says During Mideast Visit

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the “gaps are narrowing” in indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over another cease-fire and hostage release that the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have spent several weeks trying to broker.

Blinken’s sixth visit to the region since the start of the Israel-Hamas war began in Saudi Arabia before going to Egypt on Thursday with a stop in Israel on Friday. In an interview Wednesday with the Al-Hadath network in Saudi Arabia, Blinken said the mediators worked with Israel to put a “strong proposal” on the table. He said Hamas rejected it, but came back with other demands that the mediators are working on.

“The gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible,” Blinken said.

The Health Ministry in Gaza raised the territory’s death toll Thursday to nearly 32,000 Palestinians. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. A United Nations food agency warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, right, meets U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, at Tahrir palace in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

Currently:

— Blinken adds a stop in Israel to his latest Mideast tour as tensions rise over fighting in Gaza.

— During the Israel-Hamas war, Jews will soon celebrate Purim, one of their most joyous holidays.

— A firework is lit, a boy is shot. Israel’s use of deadly force against Palestinians is scrutinized.

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

Here’s the latest:

HEALTH MINISTRY RAISES DEATH TOLL IN GAZA TO NEARLY 32,000 PALESTINIANS
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s Health Ministry says the overall Palestinian death toll from the Israel-Hamas war has climbed to nearly 32,000.

The ministry says 31,988 Palestinians have been killed since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack triggered the war, and another 74,188 Palestinians have been wounded. It says 65 bodies have been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, as well as 92 wounded people.

The ministry does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its figures, but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed.

Israel’s military says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence.

The Gaza Health Ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government, maintains detailed casualty records. Its figures from previous wars largely matched those of United Nations bodies, independent experts and even the Israeli military’s tallies.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostage after storming across the border into southern Israel on Oct. 7. More than 100 hostages were freed in November in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

ISRAELI ACTIVISTS LAUNCH CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN FOR SANCTIONED SETTLER’S BROTHER
JERUSALEM — Israeli activists have launched an online fundraiser that mentions the family of an extremist settler sanctioned by United States President Joe Biden’s administration for alleged attacks on Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists.

The campaign appears to be an effort to skirt U.S. sanctions on violent Israeli settlers and the unauthorized settlement outposts where they live. The sanctions prevent settlers from accessing the American financial system and expose them to an asset freeze.

The fundraiser does not directly mention the sanctioned settler, Moshe Sharvit, nor his outpost, but says it is raising money for “settlement activities” in memory of his brother, who was killed in fighting in Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The page says the funds are to build a synagogue, educational center and facility for Torah study in the Jordan Valley, where Sharvit’s sanctioned outpost is located.

Hosted on the Israeli crowdfunding site Givechak, the campaign raised over $875,000 from more than 10,500 donors as of Wednesday. The site is the latest in a string of online fundraising campaigns that have collected the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for settlers sanctioned by the U.S. and Britain. At least two crowdfunding pages for sanctioned settlers have now been taken down.

Sharvit and Givechak did not respond to requests for comment.

ISRAEL SAYS ITS AIRSTRIKE KILLED 2 MILITANTS IN THE WEST BANK
JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says it launched an airstrike that killed two Palestinian militants during a raid in the West Bank.

The military said in a statement early Thursday that the two posed a threat to its forces, which were operating in the built-up Nur Shams refugee camp in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

The Palestinian Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service both said four people were killed in Nur Shams, including the two killed in the airstrike, without saying whether they were civilians or combatants.

On Wednesday, a separate Israeli airstrike killed three Palestinian militants traveling in a car in the northern West Bank. The Islamic Jihad group claimed them as members.

Violence across the Israeli-occupied West Bank has surged since the Israel-Hamas war broke out last Oct. 7. Since then, at least 435 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli fire, according to Palestinian health officials.

The Palestinians seek an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

THE GAPS ARE NARROWING IN NEGOTIATIONS FOR A NEW ISRAEL-HAMAS CEASE-FIRE DEAL, BLINKEN SAYS
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the “gaps are narrowing” in indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over another cease-fire and hostage release.

The United States, Egypt and Qatar have spent several weeks trying to broker an agreement to pause the fighting in Gaza and bring about the release of more of the scores of hostages captured by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack that started the war.

Blinken’s sixth visit to the region since the start of the war began in Saudi Arabia and will take him to Egypt on Thursday and Israel on Friday. In an interview Wednesday with the Al-Hadath network in Saudi Arabia, Blinken said “the gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible.” He said the mediators worked with Israel to put a “strong proposal” on the table but that Hamas rejected it. But, he said, Hamas came back with other demands that the mediators are working on.

Hamas has demanded guarantees that any cease-fire agreement will lead to an end to the war and the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza, from which hundreds of thousands fled following Israeli evacuation orders in October. Israel has thus far rejected those demands, saying it is determined to renew its offensive after any cease-fire and continue fighting until it destroys Hamas.

Hamas is still believed to be holding around 100 hostages, as well as the remains of around 30 others. It hopes to exchange them for the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

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