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Glimpse of hope for Gaza peace deal despite Rafah assault plan approval



Israel said on Friday (March 15) it would send a delegation to Qatar for fresh talks on a ceasefire and hostage release in Gaza, keeping faint hopes for a truce alive despite rejecting a long-awaited counter-offer from Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office also said he had approved a plan for an assault on Rafah, the city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where more than half of the territory's 2.3 million residents are sheltering, though it gave no timeframe for such an attack.

Negotiators failed this week to reach a ceasefire agreement for the Gaza war in time for the Ramadan Muslim holy month. But Washington and Arab mediators are still determined to reach a deal to head off an Israeli assault on Rafah and let in humanitarian aid to stave off mass starvation.

The Open Arms vessel carrying aid sails off the shore of Gaza. /Mohammed Salem/Reuters
The Open Arms vessel carrying aid sails off the shore of Gaza. /Mohammed Salem/Reuters

The Open Arms vessel carrying aid sails off the shore of Gaza. /Mohammed Salem/Reuters

More than two weeks after receiving an Israeli-approved proposal for a truce, Hamas gave mediators on Thursday (March 14) its first formal counter-proposal in more than a month. Like previous proposals from both sides, the offer foresees dozens of Israeli hostages being freed in return for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, during a weeks-long ceasefire that would let in aid.

It also calls for talks in a later stage on ending the war, seen as anathema to Israel which says it will negotiate only over a temporary truce.

Though Israel did not accept, its description of the terms as "still unrealistic" was notably milder than the language it used about the previous Hamas offer last month, which Netanyahu called "completely delusional" and "from another planet."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose country hosted the main negotiations in recent weeks, said he was still working hard to reach a deal.


Aid arrives by sea

The first vessel bringing aid by sea, the Open Arms, carrying 200 tons of food, could be seen in the distance off the beach of Gaza, after being towed from Cyprus. The charity World Central Kitchen aims to deliver the aid on a temporary jetty.

If the new sea route is successful, it may help to ease the hunger crisis affecting Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people face malnourishment and hospitals in the worst-stricken northern areas have reported children dying of starvation.

In one of the worst reported incidents yet, Gaza health authorities said at least 21 people had been killed and 150 wounded at a queue for aid near Gaza City on Thursday night, blaming Israeli forces for shooting into the crowd.

Israel denied its troops were to blame and said Hamas fighters had opened fire. 


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Increasing friction

There are increasing signs of friction between Washington and its close ally Israel over the conduct of the war, which officials in President Joe Biden's administration say is being waged with too little care for Palestinian civilians.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the United States and a leader of Biden's Democratic Party, called on Thursday for Israelis to replace Netanyahu, whose hardline policies he said were wrecking Israel's international standing.

"Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah," Schumer said.

Netanyahu's Likud Party said his policies had widespread public support.

"Senator Schumer is expected to respect Israel's elected government and not undermine it," it said. "This is always true, and even more so in wartime."

Glimpse of hope for Gaza peace deal despite Rafah assault plan approval

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Source(s): Reuters
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