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Israel and Hamas are making progress in cease-fire and hostage-release talks, officials say

CAIRO — (AP) — Israel and Hamas are making progress toward another cease-fire and hostage-release deal, officials said Tuesday, as negotiations went on and Israel threatened to expand its offensive to Gaza's southern edge, where some 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge.

The talks continued in Egypt a day after Israeli forces rescued two captives in Rafah, the packed southern town along the Egyptian border, in a raid that killed at least 74 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and caused heavy destruction. The operation offered a glimpse of what a full-blown ground advance might look like.

A cease-fire deal, on the other hand, would give people in Gaza a desperately needed respite from the war, now in its fifth month, and offer freedom for at least some of the estimated 100 people still held captive in Gaza. Qatar, the United States and Egypt have sought to broker a deal in the face of starkly disparate positions expressed publicly by both Israel and Hamas.

Israel has made destroying Hamas' governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages the main goals of its war, which was launched after thousands of Hamas-led militants rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 people captive. Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from destroyed communities.

The war has brought unprecedented destruction to the Gaza Strip, with more than 28,000 people killed, more than 70% of them women and minors, according to local health officials. Vast swaths of the territory have been flattened by Israel's offensive, around 80% of the population has been displaced and a humanitarian catastrophe has pushed more than a quarter of the population toward starvation.

In other developments, South Africa, which has lodged genocide allegations against Israel at the International Court of Justice, said Tuesday that it filed an "urgent request" with the court to consider whether Israel's military operations in Rafah constitute a breach of provisional orders handed down by the justices last month. Those orders called on Israel to take greater measures to spare civilians.

Israel has adamantly denied the genocide allegations and says it is carrying out operations in accordance with international law. It blames Hamas for the high death toll because the militants operate in dense residential areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on until "total victory," and has insisted that military pressure will help free the hostages. But the rescued hostages, 60-year-old Fernando Marman and 70-year-old Louis Har, were just the second and third captives to be freed by the military since the war erupted.

Other Israeli officials have said only a deal can bring about the release of large numbers of hostages.

Over 100 were freed in exchange for 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel during a weeklong truce last year. Three hostages were killed erroneously by Israeli forces in December and one female Israeli soldier was freed in a rescue mission in the early weeks of the war. Israeli officials say around 30 hostages taken on Oct. 7 have died, either during the initial attack or in captivity.

BRIDGING THE GAPS

A senior Egyptian official said mediators have achieved “relatively significant” progress ahead of a meeting Tuesday in Cairo of representatives from Qatar, the U.S. and Israel. The official said the meeting would focus on “crafting a final draft” of a six-week cease-fire deal, with guarantees that the parties would continue negotiations toward a permanent cease-fire.

CIA chief William Burns and David Barnea, head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, attended the Cairo talks. Both men played a key role in brokering the previous cease-fire.

A Western diplomat in the Egyptian capital also said a six-week deal was on the table but cautioned that more work is still needed to reach an agreement. The diplomat said the meeting Tuesday would be crucial in bridging the remaining gaps.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media.

While the officials did not disclose the precise details of the emerging deal, the sides have been discussing varying proposals for weeks.

Israel has proposed a two-month cease-fire in which hostages would be freed in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries.

Hamas rejected those terms. It laid out a three-phase plan of 45 days each in which the hostages would be released in stages, Israel would free hundreds of imprisoned Palestinians, including senior militants, and the war would wind down, with Israel withdrawing its troops. That was viewed as a non-starter for Israel, which wants to topple Hamas before ending the war.

But President Joe Biden signaled Monday that a deal might be within reach.

“The key elements of the deal are on the table,” Biden said alongside visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II, adding, “there are gaps that remain.” He said the U.S. would do “everything possible” to make an agreement happen.

DEATH TOLL MOUNTS

The signs of progress came despite ongoing fighting.

Palestinians were still counting the dead after Israel’s hostage rescue mission as the death toll climbed Tuesday to 74. Residents and displaced Palestinians in Gaza were searching through the rubble from Israeli airstrikes that provided cover for the rescue mission.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab broadcaster funded by Qatar, said an Israeli airstrike in Rafah wounded two of its journalists, with one having to undergo an amputation. It identified the wounded as cameraman Ahmad Matar and reporter Ismail Abu Omar. It was unclear when the strike took place, and the Israeli military had no immediate comment.

While concerns have grown over Rafah because it is sheltering such a large number of Palestinians, fighting continued throughout the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military said troops were battling militants in Gaza’s second-largest city, Khan Younis, and in central Gaza. It said Tuesday that three soldiers were killed in combat, raising the death toll among troops since the Gaza ground operation began in late October to 232.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says the bodies of 133 people killed in Israeli strikes were brought to hospitals over the past day. The fatalities brought the death toll in Gaza to 28,473 since the war began on Oct. 7, according to the ministry, which says more than 68,000 people have been wounded.

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Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Goldenberg from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.

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

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