Berliner Tageblatt - Israel vows to push into Gaza's far-south as truce talks underway

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Israel vows to push into Gaza's far-south as truce talks underway
Israel vows to push into Gaza's far-south as truce talks underway / Photo: © AFP

Israel vows to push into Gaza's far-south as truce talks underway

Israel's prime minister said Sunday a potential ceasefire in its war against Hamas militants would only delay a ground invasion of Gaza's southern city Rafah that has sheltered more than half of the conflict-battered territory's population.

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Israel's ally the United States said ongoing mediation efforts produced "an understanding" towards a ceasefire and hostage release, while dire food shortages in northern Gaza have sent Palestinians fleeing.

Egyptian, Qatari and US experts met in Doha for talks also attended by Israeli and Hamas representatives, state-linked Egyptian media said, in the latest effort to secure a truce before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the military operation into Rafah, on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, would put Israel within weeks of "total victory" over Hamas whose October 7 attack triggered the war.

"If we have a deal, it will be delayed somewhat, but it will happen," he told CBS of the looming ground invasion feared to bring more mass civilian casualties in Rafah, where around 1.4 million Palestinians -- most of them displaced from other areas -- have converged.

"If we don't have a deal, we'll do it anyway," Netanyahu said.

"It has to be done because total victory is our goal and total victory is within reach -- not months away, weeks away, once we begin the operation."

The Doha talks follow a weekend meeting in Paris, without Gaza rulers Hamas, where representatives "came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for temporary ceasefire would look like", White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN.

More than four months into the war, desperate families in the north of the besieged Gaza Strip have been forced to scavenge for food as fighting and looting have stopped humanitarian deliveries.

- 'Uninhabitable' -

Hundreds headed south whichever way they could, walking down garbage-strewn roads between the blackened shells of bombed-out buildings, said an AFP correspondent.

"I came on foot from north Gaza," said Samir Abd Rabbo, 27, who arrived with his one-year-old daughter at the Nuseirat camp in central Gaza.

Without milk, he said, he had tried to feed his baby girl bread made from animal feed, which she was unable to digest. "Our only hope is God, there is nobody else to help."

"Even the animal fodder that we had resorted to is now unavailable," he said, and wild herbs have "now been depleted, people have gathered it all".

Israeli forces continued striking targets across the Palestinian territory and battling Hamas militants in heavy urban combat centred on the southern city of Khan Yunis, near Rafah.

The war broke out after Hamas's unprecedented attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,692 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest tally issued Sunday by the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Talks have been held for weeks with the goal of reaching a temporary truce, to exchange Hamas's hostages for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and to step up aid deliveries.

Mediators have voiced hope a deal can be reached before the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

Jordan's King Abdullah II met with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and warned "of the continuation of the war on Gaza during the holy month of Ramadan, which will increase the threat of expanding the conflict", according to a royal statement.

Media reports suggest the warring parties are weighing a six-week halt to fighting and the initial exchange of dozens of female, underage and ill hostages for several hundred Palestinian detainees.

Hamas has so far also insisted on a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, a demand Netanyahu has dismissed as "delusional".

- 'Desperation' -

The Israeli military announced that about "200 terror suspects" had been detained at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, saying its forces had "concluded" in recent days an operation around southern Gaza's main medical facility.

The hospital was raided 10 days ago following days of fighting which left the complex in an "indescribable" state without electricity or running water, according to the World Health Organization.

Gaza's health ministry previously said that troops had detained "a large number of medical staff, patients and displaced people".

Humanitarian aid was being delivered to the facility, the army said Sunday.

Israeli warnings of a Rafah ground invasion have sparked deep concern, and questions about where the Palestinians who have sought refuge there, many in makeshift camps, would flee to in the devastated territory.

Neighbouring Egypt has kept its border closed to a mass refugee flight, arguing it will not help facilitate any Israeli operation to push Palestinians out of Gaza.

But satellite images show it has also built a walled enclosure next to Gaza, in an apparent effort to brace for the arrival of large numbers of refugees.

Inside Israel, public pressure has grown on Netanyahu -- both from the desperate families of hostages demanding swifter action, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.

Red Crescent volunteer Ezzedin Halaweh said food shortages in the north were "leading to severe health issues, especially among children".

A Hamas official in northern Gaza told AFP that "killing our people by starvation... is a crime of genocide that threatens the entire process of negotiations".