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Cease-fire talks with Israel and Hamas are expected to resume Sunday in Qatar

CAIRO — Stalled talks aimed at securing a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas are expected to resume 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 join 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 terrorists 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 see the release of 35 hostages — women, those who are ill and older people — held by terrorists in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

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 northern Gaza and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the officials said.

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.

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

The United States and other countries have warned that a military operation in Rafah could be disastrous, but Israel says it plans to push ahead to destroy Hamas battalions stationed there.

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

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

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.

As part of efforts to get 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 Kitchen 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.

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

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